Natalie Seabolt Dobson is a native of West Virginia where she resides with her husband and children. She holds an MFA from West Virginia University where she taught writing for eight years. Other short fiction has been published in Mountainechoes: An Online Journal of Literature and Culture and Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is currently working on a novel.
It was Cullan who sliced the pale under-wrists of both boys. He who held Jaimie’s wrist to his own with such force his entire forearm went numb—Jaimie’s wrist slipping like soap from a wet hand, trailing blood as it went. The markings of brothers. Boys of the same blood. He can still feel again the pull and sting of the blade as he blasts forward on interstate 79 headed for mountains.
Cullan hasn’t been home since Christmas. It’s midsummer now. The construction job keeps him in Charlotte, hanging ceilings grid by grid, square into square, like a guessing card game. Only every square’s the same. But it wasn’t the work that bothered him. Cullan had never wanted college like Jamie. The four walls of a classroom closed up on him and squeezed until he couldn’t breathe. And although living with his mother was frustrating, and he sometimes hated her bitterness, the land and the little house had come from his mother’s family, way back. With his father long dead from the mines, his mother needs help. She’s always worked and had his father’s Social Security, but it isn’t enough. With the coal strike in full swing, there are no other jobs that pay enough for them to make it. Cullan had to leave. He sends the money home every two weeks in yellowed manilla envelopes.
This is what he thinks about, what drives him three hundred miles north across the West Virginia state line. The land and Jamie, the only person Cullan can call friend. He remembers their first real talk—third grade recess on the school steps. Jamie revealed that he carried a real Indian arrowhead in his pocket for good luck. Cullan asked if he’d ever met a real Indian. Jamie shook his head. “You’re lookin’ at one,” Cullan whispered. Two weeks later, they were blood brothers.
The interstate is deserted, low-lying fog at the edge of the road. City far behind him now. He can’t help but think of his mother. She will be sleeping on the same sheets, wearing the same old paisley house coat she’d been wearing the day he left. She’ll yell at him for coming home without calling and then she’ll complain about his going away in the first place. She can never make up her mind. Can never follow anything through to a sensible end.
While he was in high school, his job had been at Donaldson’s Market as a bag boy and while he worked, he watched. He watched all the girls, and their mothers, grocery shopping, running in to “grab this or that,” their flower scented perfumes and hairsprays trailing after them. Nothing like his own mother. Cullan was polite, quiet, and courteous while he searched among them. But the mothers sensed him; he knew it. A look too long at their daughters, or maybe the feel of his eyes heavy on their own shoulders, sliding down into the curves of their backs.
Yet it wasn’t their bodies he wanted. It was their words. Their stories. He looked for a woman who had a story, one she would tell with pride. “This is how I got here,” she’d say. “This is what we do…why we are here…this is for you, too,” she’d say. But none had ever volunteered the hows and whys of their lives. Instead they were secretive and timid, walking with eyes cast to the ground. So Cullan carried the desire with him—this want for a strong woman—like an empty bag. Empty but bulky enough to notice.
It is his mother, really, who has made him this way. Growing up, his mother told him about his great-great grandmother being Blackfoot…
“My mama’s grandpa Hickory went out West to cut lumber, couldn’t make it here in the mines. ‘Fraid of the dark they say. He came back here a couple years later with an Indian bride. Blackfoot. Mean, so they say. Mama told us all kinds of tales on her. Said one time she went back out there to see her family, and here at home they got company. Grandpa knew she wouldn’t like it if his people slept in her bed, but he let them. When she got home, no one said a word. But she knew somehow; dragged the mattress outside and burned it right there in the yard...Ain’t that the most ridiculous thing you ever heard? And they say no matter what it was the men brung home, deer, bear, she had to have the tongue. Ate it raw. Cut it out herself, too. So yer great grandpa said. Still…I can’t believe a word a that. I couldn’t of come from a woman like that.”
So it went with his mother’s storytelling. She always ruined the end, making sure he didn’t really believe it all, making sure that he couldn’t take pride or comfort in it. “All that Indian talk is just stories…besides, being a half-breed ain’t much to feel proud of.” Every night of his childhood, Cullan would sink into the twin bed lodged in the corner of his bedroom and wish for a different mother. He prayed that his Indian grandmother would switch souls with his own mother and end her collection of butchered stories. He prayed for a connection to a past which was lost to him. Then he slipped into sleep.
At a rest area near Bluefield, Cullan parks his truck and sleeps. His dreaming is unsettled and sketched together. His body in the cab of the truck, the rest of him touching down on the far left corner of the back pasture—his mother and the house barely in sight, the force of him heading on past the tree line.
Jamie and his family live in an old farm house up on the ridge of the Gauley River, on land adjacent to Cullan’s family property-- fifteen minutes down the mountain to the water. As boys, they fished for hours. This is when Cullan would talk, tell his stories. The ones from his own heart. Jamie would ask questions, nod his head. Sometimes, there was fear in his eyes. “Did you know Blackfoot Indians used to hunt right through here?”
Later, Jamie would repeat the tales as they fished the Cranberry, filling in gaps over the sound of rushing water as they made their way over rocks, up and down the banks of the small river. He understood how a story needed shape and strength. When they reached a pool that promised dark, slick trout, Cullan would let Jamie cast, and he would move upstream to the next shady hole, savoring the details of their imagined ancestry, his stomach tight with waiting for the next detail.
Afterward, they would take trout from sandwich bags stuffed in their pockets, remove heads, slit bellies, and pull small slips of bone from the bodies. Jamie would build the fire while Cullan fashioned roasting sticks with a pocketknife. The skin of the fish would turn crispy, the flesh inside white and delicious. It was then that Cullan felt connected. A full stomach. A shared story that made sense, followed a pattern, ended with two brothers.
Yet when Cullan tried to weave his story to his mother, her response always choked him with frustration. Mother tried to convince her son that being part Indian was nothing. “Families make up tales as time goes along. That’s all they can do.” His stomach pinches at the thought of her penciled lips, destroying the story of his great-great Blackfoot grandmother. Since the first time mother had tried to tell it, Cullan has needed that story, wanting it to make him a part of something victorious over the drudgery of his life.
Cullan wakes to a wine-red sunrise and hears his mother’s whisper, “Red at night, sailor’s delight, red in morning, sailor’s warning...” Cullan guns the engine, hitting 75 before he’s out of the entrance lane.
He pulls into Craigsville as sunrise fades into the blue summer sky clear of clouds and the town is resting in the humming of oncoming heat, children watching cartoons and those who don’t have work still wrapped in their beds, reluctant to face the day. He passes the hardware store, post office, and drive-in theatre. Pulls into the dirt road and follows the two miles out to the house. He sees the rigid outline of his mother standing at the kitchen window, most likely washing yesterday’s dishes. She meets him at the door. “What’s the matter? Why didn‘t you call?”
Cullan does not respond, only stands in silence. His mother steps back, ushers him in with a sweep of her arm. “You’re just like your granddaddy Hickory. Never had a shred of respect for the way you make people feel. You just do what you want.”
Exhaling with frustration, Cullan turns to go. When his hand grabs the doorknob, he hears mother’s voice catch in her throat. “Git on back there to your room and lay down. You gotta be tired after drivin’ all night like you did.”
The hallway carpet muffles his footsteps as he moves to the bedroom. His dream catcher and paintings are still on the wall. Even the antler-handled knife in its glass case remains. Mother had threatened to sell it the last time he was here. Cullan wishes he could back out of the room and sleep in the truck, but realizes she is standing behind him in the hallway. He reaches over and closes the door, slowly turning the knob until it clicks, imagining her fingertips, sliding, searching for an opening in the wall she has made out of her life and his own. Cullan cracks the window and climbs onto the bed without taking off his shoes.
When he wakes, air heavy and humid leaks in through the window. He knows his mother is at work. He rises, takes a shower, and climbs back into his clothes. Mother has left a plate of food under a dish towel on the table. But Cullan’s stomach feels full, and he needs to get out. He decides to drive to Go-Mart, buy a twelve-pack, head to Jamie’s.
He parks in the dirt lot behind the store. It’s surrounded by small houses with tiny yards, one lot after another. A few dogs bark sharp warnings, but do not come out to the road. The light from the house windows is the dark yellow of evening sun, and it clouds the dusk so that Cullan can barely see the road. Following the crunch and slip of sparse gravel under his boots, he goes on. He glances up and slows, seeing the sky, the deep blue-black of pond water untouched by stirring wind. Dropping his eyes, Cullan traces the curve of the hills around him, feeling as though he is in center bottom of a great mud-dried bowl, empty and waiting for rain to flood up and over its edges.
The white light of the convenience store is familiar, and washes away the memory of the sky as he has just seen it, the freeze of the beer cooler jolting him from his thoughts. Cullan puts down his money and makes his way back into darkness, noticing the trucks and cars pulled together in the side parking lot, their drivers huddled in the center; girls not more than thirteen, painted and drunk on one beer; boys, too old to be involved, too young to be the fathers they’ll become. He makes his way back into the dark, and pops open a beer as he walks, tunneling its coldness into the deepest part of him. Staring down into the mouth of the can, the blackness seems never ending, speaking of a place that could sustain, yet drown him just as easily.
Black. Foot. Cullan remembers reading the Blackfoot were part of the Blood tribe of northern Minnesota. Plains people. Buffalo hides and seasonal camps. Maybe their name came from the dark color of their moccasins, but maybe, instead of the pale, bare-bottomed feet, theirs were blackened with the blood of enemies, worn tough like paw-pads of a mountain cat, then children were born with them…their blood-blackened soles a mirror image to the earth itself.
As he nears the turn in the road, he sees Jamie’s house. Thinking of the back porch that opens up to three acres of land facing Cottle Knob, Cullan breathes, heart slows. The press of his mother begins to fade.
Cullan hears music before he sees the vehicles lining the road on both sides, before understanding. Jamie is having a party. It’s the last thing Cullan wants, but he has no choice. The need of his friend more important.
Tucking the beer under his arm, he breathes deep and strides toward the house. As he emerges from the carnival of shapes parked in the driveway, Cullan hears Jamie calling to him from the front porch. Cullan raises his hand which holds the beer, and smiles to himself before he steps into the light.
“God damn, man, I didn’t know you was comin’ home tonight. This is great.”
Cullan nods, and takes another drink. He looks around to find another face he knows while Jamie finishes a conversation. A girl stares at Cullan from the corner, behind the porch swing. She smiles. He looks down into his can, sets it on the banister, and reaches for another. His nerve grows enough for him to look again. She is gone.
Jamie throws an empty can into a box on the porch and takes a beer from Cullan’s pack. “It’s good to see you, man. Really.” He pulls a cigarette from his front shirt pocket and hands it to Cullan who bends down to Jamie’s lighter. Draws.
When he looks up, the girl is standing behind Jamie. She smiles again. Cullan leans back, exhales, blowing smoke up like a geyser. When it clears, only Jamie’ face is there in the light.
“You wanna fish Hills Creek tomorrow? Just stay here tonight and we’ll catch a couple hours sleep. Dad’ll wake us when he gits in, and I’ll drive...”
Cullan can see Jamie’s mouth moving in a rhythm familiar to him, but he can’t hear very well. The music is loud. His words and the beer are too much. Cullan’s bladder is tight. Tense. Punches Jamie’s shoulder, nods toward the bathroom.
“Okay, man. I’ll be right here.”
Cullan sticks to the walls, traveling the periphery, as if he might fall into the card game taking place dead center in the room. Treads through smoke and dark hallway. Peers through the cracked door. The girl is there, sitting on the counter, throat to the sky so that her hair hangs into the sink, some poor, drunk fool up her shirt. She lowers her chin and, grinning, says to him with her eyes that she wants him to watch her. The girl is not beautiful. Nose swollen near the middle, teeth not matching in size, arms too short for her height. Yet she grows big from his gaze. Mammoth. Beckoning.
Groin tightens, stirs at her face as it takes him in but looks beyond him at the same time. She is tempting, flattering. Silent.
Planting both palms flat to the boy’s head, she weans him from her. Slides past Cullan in the doorway, looping her finger in his belt, pulling. They slip past the poker game and out into the road.
She steers Cullan against the side of the house, leans against his back tearing open his zipper. Holds him loose in her hand, he urinates against the house, dewing the grass.
Relief floods him, leaving him empty, craving her words.
Cullan feels a pulling away, a backward wind. Feels rain soft on the back of his neck. Turning his head, he expects her voice. Wondering stirs him. Will it be low, husky, like an old bitch dog or rising cloudy from her throat, asking him to lean in, strain his body to hear? To satisfy? His stomach growls, rumbles.
Searching the street, eyes cannot find her, ears hear only her footsteps scuffing. Imagines her lips parting for the words. Salivating now, turning toward the sound. Cullan runs.
Why won’t she speak? Undergrowth rustles up ahead, the disturbance propelling forward alongside the town road which Cullan now cannot see but can feel through his shoes has turned to dirt and steady but slow rain causes his steps to stick then pluck as he pulls away from the ground with a forced running.
The girl’s skin is moon white showing even in this dark as she reemerges from the weeds and goes, not simply running, but flying through the tunnel of country road and trees reaching higher than the mountains.
Cullan’s stomach is empty now. His body weakens with the lack of talk, this girl’s talk, her story, which if only she would speak to him he would slow and digest the sounds into his bloodstream, living on for days because of it. But prolonged hunger breeds anger and anger takes over now and fatigue flees behind him like a ghost.
Gaining distance on her, his mouth thick and expectant for the salty weight of her speech, Cullan can hear her running breath as she veers off into the woods, a specter weaving through trees ancient in this land which was once ocean.
Cullan slips down into a creek bed, the smell of trout strong in the air, the shock of water so cold it takes his breath. He sees her like a flapping clothes-lined sheet scrambling up the bank. The dark of these trees—so many pines. Cullan knows this place. These woods. Land of his childhood. This piece stretches from town, at least five miles, to Milam Brack’s farm, down the ridge to the Gauley. He knows every inch of it. Even in this dark.
Cutting into the woods, pressing up the slope, he knows his feet will come down the other side to a narrow trace. He will follow it along the bottom of the ridge she is running and cut her off where her path pans out and meets the trace. She will lose time on the down slope. But it means that then, right then, he will savor her words; her story the one. He’s waited his whole life.
Cullan’s feet are searching the creek bed; he steps wide and open, scissoring lengths before realizing he must have gone too far. With only seconds to spare he sprints along the bottom, certain he will meet it. He has misjudged the landscape but it’s dark and maybe the beer. He runs.
On and on he travels, his stomach growling again with predatory zeal. It is a starved movement, a desperate act of faith, this trust of the land. Yet he begins to feel it slipping under his feet, time backing up on him, refusing to go like a spooked horse. He is choking on his desire for her words, as though she pulls it up his throat with splintered twine.
He has missed the trace altogether and the maple grove where ridge meets slope is no longer. Dizzy with lostness he is displaced. Furious. Ahead he sees shapes humped against small black hills…logs. The land has been logged. Cut for lumber. Creeks re-routed or destroyed altogether. This land. The only place in the world he was sure of. He re-traces the map in his head knowing he will never do it on foot again. It is in this second that he falls over her, his face meeting hers in the dark.
She crawls over the ground, slinking with speed. Cullan takes her ankle, pulling, rolls her under him.
He waits. Eyes wide, mouth tense. She stares at him. Silent. He shakes her, just a little. Waits.
Her head swivels to answer his shaking as if she understands the question and does not want it. “No,” the movement says. “No.”
Cullan’s hand fits perfectly around her throat, cupping the back of her neck as if she is a copperhead in May, her mouth gaping.
He does not believe it. But sees it still. Inside her mouth are teeth, guards of nothing but an empty bowl. Smooth as porcelain, no chips or cracks. He traces the inside with one finger then two, making sure. Knowing makes him want to snap her neck. The girl has no tongue.
Rain is soaking him through, the cold creeping. Mother speaks to Cullan in her incomplete, unappetizing words, teasing him with the taste of the perfect story. Cullan wanted the story to end there, just filling him enough. Yet Mother always went on.
“Ain’t that awful? Just plain ole sick. I can’t even stand to think about it.”
But Cullan did. At this moment he wants to be his great-great grandmother. He wishes he stood here, knife in hand, a bloody tongue held high to the trees. Then he could go home and talk. Even to Mother. But this, the way it is, he can’t breathe. Her wide open eyes and black hole mouth are too much. He crams his fist in; tries to pull out her words, but she bites and he knocks her head on the ground. Hard. She moves no more. He rises and fades away into the woods.
Another hour passes before he feels the gravel again with his boots, and sees the rotting shelter. He and Jamie used to catch the school bus here before Jamie got his car. Cullan drags his body inside, squeezes into a corner. Sleeps.
He dreams of walking along the Cranberry with Jamie, fish squirming in his pocket, only seconds from their deaths. His stomach growls with anticipation of the meal and he reaches for the plastic bag so he can count the trout again. But a bloody tongue fills his palm. He wakes with the salt of sweat on his lips. Makes his way home. It is pitch black. A cold rain still falls.
There are no lights on in the house, his mother still asleep. Cullan goes to the kitchen sink, runs water; scrubs with Palmolive. Over and over between his fingers, then arms and face, neck, wanting to rinse away the feel of her. The dead silence that was her.
Growling with a low roaring, his stomach begs for food. The refrigerator holds leftover chili, macaroni and cheese, a bowl of brown-sugared carrots. Cullan warms it all, eats slowly at first but when it’s nearly gone, chews faster then not at all, swallowing mouthfuls at a time. His stomach empties as he eats so that the end of the meal becomes the beginning. He digs in the cabinets--crackers, dried fruit, potato chips, pickles.
Cullan doesn’t wake his mother, makes his way out of town without looking back, but as he crosses the West Virginia state line, he sees the girl. She follows in a blue Escort, mouth wide, a perfect circle of emptiness wanting to suck him into its tunnel. The car pulls into the side lane to pass and Cullan feels sweat bead on his back. It accelerates, pulls in front. The driver is brunette, forty-ish. Not her.
The land flattens as he drives forward into day. Finally he’s in the outskirts of Charlotte, making his way to the ground floor apartment which becomes his den, a deep burrow in a tower that houses exiles from all places laboring for their lives in the city. Cullan now avoids public places, refusing to meet eyes with anyone, because time and again he sees her, at the grocery store, gas station, in a doorway at work. But she disappears into someone else each time, flowing in and out of people, a leftover soul.
He goes to work and returns home, hiding with blinds drawn and ravishes great stocks of food that layer pound after pound of weight onto his frame. Does not answer Jamie’s calls, does not travel back to the mountains. The connection is lost, Jamie not a part of this story. Cullan is a tight-laced ball of fury void of sound, never speaking. Even when his mother makes the trip South and knocks for two days on his apartment door, he doesn’t talk. When she comes in with the landlord, Cullan hides in the top of his bedroom closet. “Could he be on vacation?” the man asks her.
That night he trips into bothered sleep and is a boy again. Trudging through trees and underbrush with his trout pole, he tastes rain in the air. Great-great grandmother follows him, chanting in language he does not know. The pair come upon a creek, upturned by big trucks, trees felled over it. Trout wag their tails with the last of the oxygen in small pools that go nowhere. Cullan sees bare, white glowing legs sticking out beneath a brush pile. Great-great grandmother pushes past him, retrieves the muted girl as if she were a thick, heavy limb, body stiff and unbending. She’s placed on the ground, face to the sky and they watch her body soften, fold, arms clutch waistline. Her mouth opens in a great O and what comes out is the force of a thousand cheering cardinals, the raging moan of a land and its people silenced. Grandmother takes out a tiny, leathered drawstring bag, producing the bloody tongue. He can see only her back now, as she brings the tongue to her face, him not knowing if it is a kiss or a taste she takes. Then she drops the bulge into the cavern which is the girl who holds things irretrievable inside her gut, carrying them over the face of the earth.
Cullan wakes and drags his mattress into the parking lot. He siphons a milk jug full of gasoline from his truck and the mattress blazes blue and orange to the sky, both in protest and apology for the one thing he loved most, which has been stolen from him out of his desire to have what he wanted in abundance by force, swallowed forever into the depths of her no-speaking mouth. He pulls off his thick boots and hurls them on the pyre, reclines on the asphalt, the bottoms of his feet so close, so close, they begin to singe and darken while Cullan hears the hum of the earth, the stars overhead merging into a great mass of white light. Shouts and traffic blur now into a blaring not in range of Cullan’s ears.