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Jan/Feb 2004 fiction

Dust and Ashes

by Carole Lanham


And to his palate doth prepare the cup:
If it be poison'd, 'tis the lesser sin
That mine eye loves it and doth first begin...
       —William Shakespeare

Even with all the fuss, Pa was quick to notice the bloody boot prints that paced the kitchen floor. "Deliver that new calf did you, son?"

Parrish nodded his head. He was anxious about the girl. They had carried her inside and put her on the bed, and now she was shaking from head to toe and looking as healthy as the old gray mop his father put him to using on the blood.

Any minute now, Ma would peel off the girl's wet clothes and send him to fetch Doc Pepperbone. So sure was Parrish about what was to follow that he need not listen when his mother told him to take Big Road instead of hillier High Spring. It was a blessing and a curse, this knowledge he possessed about things yet to come. And when the girl's legs kicked free of her mud-splattered skirts, he knew he'd pause in the doorway and sneak a backward look.

He couldn't help himself.

The girl was Arden, his cousin from South Carolina. She was seventeen and a Confederate (Ma's memory was long), and that was all Parrish had been told before his father brought her home. A letter came six weeks before. Ma read it at the cast iron, the stub of a candle fixed in one hand, fancy blue paper shivering in the other. By the time the reading was done, hot wax dripped off the end of her elbow. She blew out the candle, did a little hiccup, and put herself to bed until noon the next day. It was Pa who explained about the accident. Ma's sister and her husband had been kilt, he said, but Parrish never heard no mention of a cousin. By the time she made the trip from Chilton to Missouri, the girl was powerful sick. Parrish shouldered two hefty saratogas in behind her, glum in the knowledge that his cousin aimed to stay awhile. Surly looks had been passing between his folks ever since, for they had neither the temperament nor the room for managing a house guest.

Pepperbone came straight away, fed the girl two shots of Quaker Bitters, and within an hour she was opening her eyes and looking up at Parrish, who was taking his turn at watching her breathe from the rocker next to the bed. She must have still been fevered though, because when she came awake, she gasped and grabbed his hand and shouted out just loud enough to make his heart do a summersault in his chest, "Mother!"

He wasn't sure which shocked him more, being mistaken for his dead aunt or the feel of that cold, little hand squeezing his. Parrish was eighteen and had been engaged for two full years, but Lydia never touched or kissed him. She was a decent sort. Like him. They courted on Lydia's front porch: four in a row on a deacon's bench with he and Lydia sandwiched closely, but not too closely, between his in-laws-to-be. Parrish would have liked to hold Lydia's hand. Fevered or not, he didn't reckon it was respectable to hold his cousin's.

Before he could figure on a polite way to withdraw it, she released his hand, and her round black eyes got normal-sized again. She said, "For a minute there, I thought you were Viola."

Viola. To Parrish, "Viola" was a water-stained photograph of a girl standing by a horse. Her corners were curled and her features were fading and a lightning bolt seam divided her head from two dark narrow shoulders. If you turned the picture over, an amber drop of glue was fixed in a hardened glob on the back of the paper. Written in his mother's sturdy hand was the word; "Viola." Viola had another meaning too. It was a name his father liked to list when giving examples of folks who had made fearsome mistakes with their lives, though just what her particular mistake was, had never been explained. Ma used to keep Viola pressed between Job 41 and 42 until the letter came. Then Viola went up on the mantle, and that's when her corners began to curl. Parrish thought it peculiar that his cousin referred to her mother by her Christian name. He had never heard of such a thing before.

He had also never heard anyone speak so funny, but then, she couldn't rightly help it, her being a Southerner and all. She said to him, very Southern-like, "You look like my mother, yet I have no idea who you are."

Parrish felt less than pleased to hear himself compared to the horse girl. Still, he couldn't help but notice that his cousin's eyes so closely resembled his own, he would have known them to be related had they merely passed on a crowded street. "I'm Parrish," he said. Then, more for the busy-ness of lighting it than for the light itself, he turned to the peg lamp next to the bed and struck a match. "I'm your cousin."

The room got yellow then, and the girl frowned at the chipped acanthus leaves that wound the posts of the old Empire bed. "And what exactly am I doing in your bed, Cousin Parrish?"

Parrish decided two things then and there: Southerners were very different from mid-western folk, and he must have lit his hair by accident while he was firing up the lamp because his face flared like fanned coals. He did a casual job of checking for flames by pretending to brush his hair back from his eyes, but he had an urgent sense that he and Lydia should consider moving up their wedding date. The good book, good as it was, could only bolster a man for so long. Somehow hearing her speak the word "bed" together with his name in the same sentence made him feel a bit twitchy, and Parrish was fairly sure that this was the sort of twitchiness that God considered a sin.

"I don't have a bed," he explained. "This room belongs to my parents."

"Where do you sleep then? With the cows?" The way the girl said it, she didn't seem so sick anymore. Or pretty.

"In the privy, actually," Parrish said, taking a poke at her uppity speech, and with those words the tone of their relationship felt set. He never did bother to tell to her that, in reality, he slept quite comfortably on a straw mattress in the loft above the kitchen. Parrish didn't know very much about women, especially Southern women, but he could see Arden lacked a proper understanding of the luxury of her surroundings. Their little log house was a good, sound house and a full room larger than most. Parrish wondered how she could turn her nose up as if reviled by some bad stink. Didn't she know how lucky she was?

But it was obvious she didn't, and, within a matter of days, Arden became the worst pain in the ass that he could possibly imagine. Parrish began to regret her swift recovery. She had arrived in Pious County with two trunks full of mourning clothes, yet, as far as Parrish could tell, she mourned the loss of her parents surprisingly little. When it came to his mother, she was mannered enough, and the girl had a way of softening up old Pa that amazed Parrish to no end. He alone became intimate with a different girl: "I didn't like my mother, Parrish, and as soon as I turn eighteen, I'll collect my inheritance and you'll never see the likes of me again."

Arden, it seemed, hated everything about frontier life, and she was thoroughly useless to boot. One day Parrish handed her an ear of corn, and she rolled it between her two palms as if looking for buttons, or a key hole. "What's this?" she asked.

"Don't they have corn where you come from?" Parrish snorted.

"In Chilton? We wouldn't hear of it."

Not to save her soul could Arden dip a candle, collect an egg, preserve a bean, thread a needle, corn pork, or operate the cistern pump, the latter of which she promptly and tearfully declared "Abominable!" the first time she was sent for water. She could, however, hang her inexpressibles out to flap on the line so that a fellow was forced to pass them amid all his comings and goings. As far as Parrish could figure, the only thing Arden was any good at was tormenting him. Parrish became familiar with two different methods for this: belittling and teasing, the teasing causing him the most unhappiness. When Arden was not busy attacking his backward ways, she was attacking his libido.

At first he assumed the lion's share of the blame, sure that no girl would brush straw from a fellow's trousers with an eye toward anything more clandestine than a bit of much-needed grooming. She was kin, after all, and he was good old wholesome Parrish. So, he berated himself for even imagining that her fingers lingered longer every time she set about to touch him, which, truth be told, seemed pretty damned often to him.

He tried to keep his nose in the Bible and remember what Pa said about the cost of sin. "The price tag is always the same. Regret. It'll follow you for all of your days, my boy, and that's a mighty stiff price to pay for anything."

Pa did a lot of preaching on the agonies of regret. To Parrish's way of thinking, his pa seemed like a regular expert on the subject. "Repentance is the only salve for it, son," his father liked to say. With finger raised, he would quote a well-trod passage from Job, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

Pa was a stern, Bible-punching man, but, for the sake of teaching lessons, he liked to let a haunted look creep over him so as to scare the daylights out of Parrish. Parrish admired that about the man and aspired to be just like him.

"You are not so good as you like to think," Arden accused one day. They were sitting on the front steps of Wagner's Dry Goods waiting for Pa to finish an order. Arden held out his arm, let her leg fall against his, then watched as goose bumps started popping up on the dirty stretch between his wrist and shirt sleeve. Parrish didn't much feel like moving his leg away, though he knew his pa was likely to be finishing soon. For months he had been attempting to inch his knee closer to Lydia's without success. Lydia always seemed to sense what was coming and chastely twist her entire self in the opposite direction. Arden didn't move her leg away until his knee starting jumping up and down. There was pity in her voice when she spoke. "You cannot be in love with me, Parrish; not with your fear of sin."

Parrish was not in love with Arden, that much was for damned certain. He could scarce abide to look at her. But Arden, true to form, just laughed at him for looking so skeery-eyed and did a great big sigh. "This town's as cold as a wagon tire. How about I kiss you right here in front of God and everyone and we shake the whole place up?"

Perish the thought, Parrish thought, even though his goose bumps only got bigger. Then he felt a hot breath worm its way deep down inside his ear. "Would you like me to kiss you, Parrish?"

Parrish, with his uncanny knowledge for things to come, knew indisputably that he would.

After that, their luxurious two-room cabin got a heck of a lot smaller. Arden wore a bracelet on her left wrist, and every time she jiggled the charms, Parrish found himself sitting up taller like a dog slave to a whistle. She used the jiggling as a signal, and inevitably some little reward would follow. Thus, Parrish came to be trained. He'd hear the clinking of the charms, and when he lifted his eyes, her hand would glide over the tiny bones of her ankle in a way that no one but Parrish ever seemed to see. Or he'd catch her sucking on a burned finger. Or licking gravy off her upper lip. And once, while she was embracing her uncle, Arden jiggled her bracelet and Parrish looked up just in time to see her sneak one finger into the thick wiry curls at the back of Pa's neck. It was a dangerous game. Parrish longed to feel the stroke of that finger on his own neck. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he imagined that he heard the tinkle of those charms calling him to wicked deeds.

He saw a priest about it because that was the only thing to do. Father Donahue was a big man with a deep voice and a high forehead that he rubbed and wrinkled whenever he disapproved of a thing. Father Donahue liked to pretend that he didn't know the identity of the person doing the confessing on the other side of the old cottage cloak that served as a privacy curtain. But he knew. He had to know, because Parrish visited him more often than any other man in town. Or woman, for that matter.

"You cannot be comin' to God with the same sin week after week, son," that big, doomy baritone voice chastised through the moth-bitten folds of the cloak.

"You mean... I'll go to Hell?" Parish said. He had a vivid picture of Father Donahue's forehead wrinkling more than it had ever had cause to wrinkle before.

"Even the Lord has a limit to his patience," the Father said.

Parrish felt his heart sink to his feet. Not that all of this was news to him, but it was troubling to hear his fate confirmed by a man of Father Donahue's authority.

Parrish had a plan though. He walked across Church Street to the little wind-scoured Victorian that Lydia shared with her family. Sandwiched between his in-laws-to-be on the old deacon's bench, he brightly suggested to his intended that they marry as soon as possible. Lydia's response was such that it seemed likely Parrish would not be hearing proper out of his right ear ever again. Christmas, Lydia said, was her most favorite time of year. Her heart was set on a December wedding and she was in tears at the thought of having to finish her wedding dress any sooner than November.

She pounded on her knee with a balled up hanky. "How dare you ask me to change my wedding, Parrish Blackburn!" Parrish could not help but find his bride's abilities as a seamstress a shade worrisome. In his opinion, it did not bode well that two years had proven inadequate time to finish a single dress. Discouraged, Parrish headed home and tried to resign himself to spending eternity in the fiery pits of Hell.

"Is it very hard to wait, Parrish?" Arden asked later that very same afternoon. "Assuming, that is, that you are waiting."

"Leave me alone," he pleaded, wishing, and not for the first time, that Arden was a boy instead of a girl so he could sock her in the snout.

They were in the barn, though why she ever came walking in, he could not remember anymore. For his part, he had three more stalls to get to before the sun went down. He picked up a pitch fork and was preparing to use it when he felt his cousin's tongue touch the back of his neck. Not the finger he'd so often dreamed of, but an actual female tongue. Parrish dropped the fork and froze, half bent over the hay.

Hell was one thing, but his father had promised him great punishment on earth as well. If there was one thing Parrish dreaded, it was doing something shameful that could never be taken back, like a spiteful word. Or a senseless lie. Or fornicating with his cousin. Parrish had said sparse few spiteful words in his time, but he lived in fear of making that one mistake he would regret for all his years. Pa had assured him that all sin came at a big expense. The examples the man could cite were endless. Grand Dad Thackory had bought a bad piece of land, and his family nearly starved to death. The neighbor down the road turned his back to bait a fish hook and lost his baby girl forever. Even the Viola that had been stuffed inside of Job for most of Parrish's life had been guilty of some atrocity that split two loving sisters apart, never to be reconciled again. If there was anything more fear-inspiring than regret, Parrish couldn't think what it was.

"Please, God," he said, squeezing his eyes shut tight. Don't do this to me.

"You are devout, I'll give you that. Salt of the earth," Arden said. Her tongue moved in league with her words, making each one slippery wet. "You even taste like salt."

Somehow he found the will to back away, but he badly missed the feel of her tongue the second he was parted from it. "Why do you hate me so much, Arden?"

"Don't be dim, Parrish. I don't hate you. I hate her." Her, he guessed, being the Viola of faded sepia and scrolled up corners that caused his mother to choke back sobs every time she passed the mantle.

Arden put her hand at the base of his throat and it moved up and down as Parrish swallowed against her fingers. "I'm bored, Parrish. I think you are too."

Parrish blinked fast several times and fought to keep his brain working. "I can't help it if you think I look like her."

"That is very true. You cannot help it." She tilted her chin up as if she meant to kiss him. Parrish stepped back again, but there was a wall behind him, and he nicked his skull on the head of a nail.

"I want Lydia," he said, rubbing the back of his head.

Arden looked unconvinced. "Desire does not wait patiently for two long years, Parrish. You only want her now because you think she can save you from me. Or from yourself."

She pulled a comb from the back of her hair and a smooth curtain of Indian black magically spilled loose. His heart charged. Parrish had never even seen his own mother with loose hair. His pulse became a wild thing then, racing to keep pace with his heart, yet somehow his blood no longer seemed to be making the climb to his brain. When Arden stood on her toes and kissed him, he closed his eyes and let the sensation pour hot and slow all through him. He savored every second, as if this single kiss would have to last him his whole life.

By this time, the beating of his heart was so loud that it felt like the organ itself had moved into his skull. I am damned for certain, he thought, and he kissed her back.

Somewhere, between the opening and closing of their mouths, he said, "But Arden, we're kin."

Part of him hoped that the reminder would make it stop. And part of him, if he could admit it, felt all the more aroused. If Arden walked away, he'd cry, and Parrish was not one to cry. But if she chose to stay, he was certain to cry later. Later was sounding better and better, the closer she stood.

Parrish had never kissed a girl before, and for him kissing would have been enough. It was Arden who pulled the door to the barn closed and gave him a dark, shiny look that told him he was about to have his first secret.

She said, "It's hard to wait, isn't it, Parrish?"

"Yes," Parrish said, nodding solemnly. Swallowing. Clenching his fists. God help me. "Yes." He put his hands in her hair and pulled her mouth hard against his own.

His ruin felt close at hand.

Ten minutes later, when it was done and their hair was full of straw, Arden turned in the crook of his arm and said, "You cannot know what it was like for me back home, Parrish. That woman hated me."

"Your own mother?" Parrish asked, not believing a single word of it, but caring far more about the bare leg she slung across his thigh.

"It's true," Arden told him as she slid her hand underneath his shirt. "I was not even allowed to call her mother. She was too young, she said. Instead, I was raised by mean old Nursey, and Viola never once came to see me until I was almost grown. Then, when I was twelve, she explained to me that she gave her heart away a year before I was born, thus she could not love my father and she could not love me. I was born to a woman without a heart, Parrish."

"But where did it go?" Parrish wondered.

Her trim nails raked his skin in a way that made him want her all over again. "You'll have to ask your father about that," she whispered.

Parrish had badgered the girl to say more, but somehow she was able to distract him so that he did not remember her cryptic words until the next day, or maybe even the day after that. He was too consumed with what he had done—too guilty, too excited, too surprised by himself. Sometimes he wished that he could take it all back. Sometimes he wished that Arden wasn't his cousin. Mostly he just wished to be alone with her again. And, if by chance, he did manage to put his mind on something else, her toes were always there under the kitchen table to remind him of what they had done. The girl was not about to let him forget. Parrish began to smell her hair on his pillow, leaving him to imagine that she had been putting her face in it while he was working. At night, he would press his nose deep in the feathers, as if he could reach her cheek if he dug down far enough. And once, when his mother wasn't looking, Arden licked his spoon before handing it to him while she was setting the supper table. Brown Betty never tasted so good.

There were three books in Parrish's house; Webster's Bible, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and Young's Literal Translation of the Bible. Thanks to his mother, Parrish could read them all, and he was reading The Mill on the Floss. Again. One evening he opened to his bookmark and saw something scrawled at the top of the page: "Don't you ever need to pee in the middle of the night?"

Parrish didn't look up. He just read the words over and over again. I am lost, he told himself.

That night, about three o'clock, Parrish had to pee.

She cornered him at the door to the outhouse and gave him such a rough shove that the old walls rattled and threatened to topple in on themselves. Before he could right any shaky boards though, her tongue was in his mouth and his knees were wobbling more than the shitter itself. "Have you forgotten about me, Parrish?"

"How can I?" he said, and he pressed his face gratefully into her hair. "Tell me, Arden, what does my father have to do with your mother losing her heart?"

Arden nibbled his ear lobe hard enough to break skin. "She loved him, you dummy."

"No," Parrish said, and he held her in front of him so he could see if she was teasing.

"Yes, Parrish. Your mother found out and sent her packing."

"My father is a good man," Parrish insisted, but Arden sniggered at this.

"Viola thought so too."

In an instant, Parrish was back to wishing that the girl was a boy. He would have loved to pop her good for saying such a thing. "Your mother may have loved him, but he could not have been in love with her."

"They were pretty close, Parrish."

Parrish gnawed his lower lip. "How close?"

Arden pressed her body against the length of his. "As close as we are, cousin."

He was prepared to protest further, but Arden sealed his mouth with a kiss. "You're wasting time," she said.

Parrish knew it was bad, but he could not stop himself from kissing her. He kissed Arden as the acorns dropped and the first of the dead leaves blew across the toes of his boots. He kissed her until a hand on the back of his neck tore him away from her.

Even in the dark, his father's face looked contrary as a piece of gristle. "What the devil do you think you're doing, boy?"

It was a question Parrish was not really meant to answer, for soon enough, his father had dragged him back to the house and sat him down hard in a kitchen chair. Arden was nowhere to be seen, and in her absence she felt almost surreal, like a guilty thought he'd been caught having. I didn't really touch her, he thought, but Pa's face said otherwise.

"What's wrong?" Ma asked, padding into the kitchen rubbing her eyes.

The words flew like bullets. "He was kissing her," Pa said, then he dropped in a chair, hung his head in his hands, and began to sob out loud.

Pa. Sobbing.

If only to make things more queer, Ma rounded the table and commenced to beat her knuckles on the old man's head.

"It was just a kiss," Parrish lied, and they both glared at him through tear-glazed eyes.

Ma slapped one hand over Pa's lips. "No! Don't you say a single word."

"We have to tell him," Pa said around the bars of her fingers.

"Tell me what?" Parrish demanded. Then, he was seized by a panic that all but turned his bones watery inside his skin. "Are you her father, Pa?"

Pa's eyes narrowed at the accusation. "No," he said and Parrish heaved a less than subtle sigh of relief. "I'm your father," Pa said. "It's just that... well, yer Aunt Viola... She was the one to give birth to you."

Parrish didn't remembering jumping up. He hardly heard his mother's cries and never felt her fingers latch on to, then lose, the tail of his shirt. A cold rain had begun to fall. He ran for the barn as if he already knew she would be there. And she was.

Arden was waiting in the same stall, her black hair loose and her wet lips smiling. "You knew," he said. "You knew it from the start."

He understood in that terrible moment that the girl was pure evil because her smile did not disappear. It grew in wild proportions. She said, "He took her away from me, and now I have taken their precious son from him." She brushed her hands together in a clap of satisfaction. "I don't imagine you'll ever be able to look your father in the eye again, will you?"

"I didn't know the truth," he reminded her through clenched teeth.

"You know it now, and look how flushed and sweaty you are." She let her thumb skip lightly along the line of his jaw. "I'll bet if I checked, I'd find goose bumps running up and down your arms."

Parrish grabbed the pitch fork and jabbed in her direction. "Get away from me."

"My. My. Such passion, darling. You'll never get over me, will you?" Parrish watched her fingers open the buttons of her dress.

His lips felt dry as drought, as did his tongue when he tried to wet them.

"You're staring, Parrish."

Something tinkled and caught a flash from the lantern. Arden leaned forward and licked his lips for him. "I only hope she's watching us in hell, brother dear."

The pitch fork was in his hand. Then it was in her chest. That was all he knew.

Parrish sank to the floor. Even as her eyes froze in shock, regret stole every last breath from his lungs. Arden's blood began to pool around his knees, and his hands were oily-red.

No, he thought. I did not do this.

He laced his fingers together and pressed them to his forehead. A drop of blood ran down his lips to drip off the end of his chin. "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." He repeated the words again and again, "Repent in dust and ashes! In dust and ashes, Lord!"

He pulled her head into his lap and cupped her cheeks between sticky fingers. "Give me another chance, Lord. You owe me that. I've been devout for all my life. Let me take it back. Let me start again, and this time I'll do better, Lord, I promise." He shook Arden's head, willing her back to life. "I promise to do better, Lord, I promise."

 

Even with all the fuss, Pa was quick to notice the bloody boot prints that paced the kitchen floor. "Deliver that new calf did you, son?"

Parrish nodded his head. He was anxious about the girl. They had carried her inside and put her on the bed and now she was shaking from head to toe and looking as healthy as the old gray mop his father put him to using on the blood.

Any minute now, Ma would peel off the girl's wet clothes and send him to fetch Doc Pepperbone. So sure was Parrish about what was to follow that he need not listen when his mother told him to take Big Road instead of hillier High Spring. It was a blessing and a curse, this knowledge he possessed about things yet to come. And when the girl's legs kicked free of her mud-splattered skirts, he knew he'd pause in the doorway and sneak a backward look.

He couldn't help himself.

 

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