James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road, which follow the consequences of an ecological disaster in the South. His essays and works of fiction have appeared in the New York Times, Appalachian Heritage, Southern Humanities Review, and other journals. He lives in north Alabama with his wife, poet Tina Mozelle Braziel. They are in the process of building a cabin by hand and writing about their experience.
Shiner is the lure in the water reeled back. The body of the lure, whether you choose gold or silver—the fish in our pond like gold—catches light in such a way, that the light gets pushed down to the deepest parts. Cold, deep places where normally light can’t get to. Just the fleck and fleck along with the hum of the tiny propeller off the lure’s nose is enough to draw a fish. I’m talking about giant bass under the pine roots left to rot when the pond was built. Way before I came into this world or Leafygirl. Back when Grandbaby was a baby.
With summer getting close, I come here after school every day, fling the shiner out, reel it back again and again until a giant bass surges toward my lure strong, doing everything it can to put the light and hum in its belly. But none of what the giant does—how fast it shake-rise-pushes against the green water with its rainbow scales, how unthinking it is, never questioning what it wants to get, it just gets—none of it is based on smell, the way my dog Flynt puts his nose to the wind to figure a corner of the yard worth running through.
Instead, to these giants, it’s all shake and rise and take the sun out of the water. For the shiner is a piece of the sun to them—or the moon if you choose silver—fallen into their world. Us humans would want to examine such an alien rock first—give it the eyeball test. But fish, they just want to eat it and take it inside. All things get eaten eventually. Even us, once the sun turns cold and the black holes start pulling the world to God. The wind then will be too strong to ignore like the tornadoes that come through in April with their zig a zag. That season’s over. Now we have rushes of tiny waves is all. Through the pine needles, a shushering. Some of the pines are older than Grandbaby. He’s still got a baby’s face with tufts of hair along his jaw line and a bald chin where lightning struck him once, he claims. He’s wide as the trunk of the biggest longleafs. His legs are fatter than taproots. Makes it hard for him to get around, especially since Leafygirl died. She flitted about in a dress after church one day, happy just to be a leaf swept up in the wind—that’s how she got her name. Leafygirl was my mother and drowned herself in the pond where the two of us swam and fished.
I think often about where she is—the pinpoint spot—cause they never dredged her body up. Tried to, but couldn’t find it with the chains. Probably her foot’s tucked under one of the stumps. They didn’t drain the pond cause it’s on a spring, cause it’s too many acres big to pump out, and Blount County doesn’t have the kind of resources to find a lost woman is what Sheriff Stoops said.
“I tell you, Leafygirl might not even be in your pond,” he said that, too, trying not to look at Grandbaby laid out on the bed like an unliftable stone. For weeks after she died, Grandbaby refused to get up. Just wept and slept. I had to feed him, had to change the bedpan. “She might’ve just left y’all.” Stoops glanced at me when he said that part. This was in November, right before the first cold snap hit. “What if she swam clear across?”
And got away was what I was thinking. She knew the cold was coming. What if she got away?
Our pond is full of underground caves, too, and she was in one, Grandbaby said. He saw her swimming from his window. Stoops walked over, put his knuckles on the sill, pressed down and leaned in to hold himself up. It’s the same window Grandbaby watches me from as I fish so he knows I’m all right. You all I got now, Tadpole, he says when I come into his room. I got my name by going to the water.
“I watched her go,” he said to the sheriff. “She swum way out until just her head was a turtle peeking up. That’s where she was.” He stretched his pointing finger to the exact X he’d fixed in his mind. X marks the spot. And Sheriff Stoops, I could tell, was trying to follow the line of Grandbaby’s pointing finger to its end on the horizon. There was no place for me at the window.
“Was she angry about something? Upset?”
“No. That’s where she was. Then she wasn’t. Just swam to her own grave. But she didn’t mean to do it.” He took his finger down. Shaking. And I bundled his hand in both of mine. His hand chilly damp and soft. My hands the quilt. He calmed and warmed after Sheriff Stoops drove off. Then a few weeks later after Thanksgiving, Grandbaby went into town to cash his check and returned home with Mae.
It was afternoon. She set her quilts on the living room couch but kept her clothes and shoes boxed. She started supper and afterward the two of us sat in front of the gas heater. Mae said, “She drowned herself.” Mae who is sixteen and older than me and smarter than me and the one who talks about such things, all things. “Leafygirl gave up on life and gave up on you.”
“Why would she do that?” I was her only child.
“Couldn’t take living,” Mae explained and lit another cigarette. One ended. Another started. “Couldn’t take it. You’ll see what I’m talking about in time.”
I wanted a definition of the “it” which Mae wouldn’t give. Her parents had forced her to stop going to school to help us. They needed money, and Grandbaby had the Navy pension. He was one of the few in the county with steady cash. The government owes, he said. And they going to pay. I got money when I knocked pinecones down and sold them $10 a bushel at Tugbails’ store. But this was just for a month in the fall.
“Sixteen is when you’re sweet,” she said. “So you better take advantage of my sweetness.” She blew a little smoke my way, right to my lips and into my eyes, and I breathed it in careful so I wouldn’t choke and put my hands up closer to the blue flame of the heater.
I’m twelve is what. Leafygirl drowned at twenty-nine. Mae’s sixteen sweet. And Grandbaby is timeless. He’ll live on forever. He said Leafygirl’s drowning was just the latest tragedy in his life.
But I like to think when I toss out my shiner, that the light turning in the water, that maybe my mother catches the light, too, that there is something in her called up out of the cold, dark, whatever cave she’s in or root she’s under, and makes her want to come to it cause she knows the sun off the lure is also me.
But nothing returns from the dead—I told myself this all winter just as I tell myself now—Nothing is coming for you.
The sun is bathing in the pond, so I walk up the hill after not catching, Mae on the porch, Flynt slumped next to her on the muddy boards. It thunderstormed yesterday.
I say to her, “Why you out here battling mosquitoes?”
“Cause they easy to kill.” She swats one on her calf. “And they don’t like my smoke.” She taps her cigarette and the ash falls. Then she says, “Your grandfather . . .” and stops a minute, “he don’t pay me enough for what he wants.”
“Grandbaby needs somebody to take care of him’s all,” I say. He’s not really my grandfather, but better for people to think I have someone to claim.
“He wants extree. Always wanting a little something more out of me. Where’s your giant fish, Tadpole?”
“Didn’t pull one.” My bucket’s rattling two shiners with the nose-pliers, and my fishing line is clipped and knotted to the rod. “I saw two giants swimming round each other on the bank.”
“Sweeping tails,” Mae says and lights another cigarette. “Fucking.” She says it where I almost don’t hear it, but I do, and she must notice the sheep look on my face cause her feet begin to tap. She’s barefooting—what Grandbaby calls it—how Mae’s left and right foot step and stir. She watches them move. She’s not watching my face any longer, and Flynt gets up off the porch with the same disposition Leafygirl had when preparing supper, not wanting to encourage rambunctiousness.
All the lights in the house are on it’s so dark. Squares of yellow come through the windows and the doorway screen. And still spring enough for the nights to cool. Nothing is cooking yet. Nothing I can smell. Mae was waiting on my catch. And I know what the word means, the one Mae said. I hear people say it in a nasty way, a harsh way all the time, but I don’t really know it. Not like I do eat or catch or burn. I have felt those words in my gut and my hands. But what Mae said, that word is just a word.
“I was your age,” she explains, “first time I got took dancing. I can show you it, if you want.”
“That’s all right,” I say uneasy.
“Well you ain’t like Grandbaby.” She shifts around in her chair, pulls at her blue dress with the brown edge, which makes the cutout along her neckline into a tidy collarbone square. “I don’t know how Leafygirl took it.”
“She didn’t,” I say.
“Hm,” Mae says and starts barefooting again, looking down. “Sometimes people know things they can’t admit to themselves. All right to live that way for a while. One day you’ll get your feet right.” She stomps. Stops. Draws her cigarette tip hot red. Flynt barks at her.
“Shhh,” I say and whip his speckled hide with the end of my rod. He yelps and runs to the front of the house where the truck’s parked.
Mae says, “I don’t mean anything. No harm between us. I like you, Tadpole.”
Next day I’m throwing the shiner out, reeling, throwing, but the giants won’t bite. They’re too busy fucking. Sure enough, two of them are in the shallows with fishtails swinging clock-hands up, clock-hands down. They move like they might transform into a snake if they keep on.
I put the lure where they are, but they don’t mess with the lure, so I put my hand in the water cause the giants have a mouth like a scrub brush—what Leafygirl said once. They are without real teeth.
“Come on, Tadpole,” Leafygirl had called me to her then, hinging a large mouth open by way of her thumb strapped over its bottom lip, her fist tucked under the scaly white chin. “Giants can’t hurt you.” I locked my hand into a fist.
Now, I just want to take hold of one of the giants, not get fin-stabbed or cut, but the water is too muddy to see into, and I’m doing more feeling than grabbing. They just sway around my rudder-hand like it isn’t there, like I’m part of what’s going on. Scales brushing, tickling, rough and slick in cool mud water.
Then their world gets quiet and they’re gone.
“I put my hand in it,” I tell Mae that night.
“The giants swimming round.” I do my hand up a swirl.
“You’re curious. What did it feel like?” She’s stirring fried potatoes and making the last of the deer steaks in another pan, what Brother Wilson brought us in November to help us get through.
“I just. Well, my heart knuckled. Then it untangled into a string. The string got pulled through me. That’s what it felt like.”
She nods. “When it’s good it feels that way.”
“What happens when it not good?”
“Can’t tell you,” she says and flips the meat slow but not like she enjoys doing so now. Some questions shouldn’t be asked. “You feel dull,” she explains. “It leaves you feeling dull.”
Grandbaby never eats with us. Mae takes him food, and afterward, after I’ve been in the bed awhile, I creak open my door, easy-step to Grandbaby’s door. They didn’t hear my sneaking cause they’re too busy making the air whoop and moan.
When she first got here, Mae slept on the couch. The same thing Leafygirl had done when the two of us got here from Piedmont and Grandbaby took us in after being in the foothill towns, switching schools and houses forever. But eventually, just like my mother, Mae snuck into Grandbaby’s room.
The whoop and moan pitches into a fierce growl. That string through my body pulls so tight. Then the growl snaps in two and snaps the string. And Mae’s left crying.
“What?” Grandbaby says. “What’s wrong girl. Shhh.” It’s all soothing he’s doing with his voice. Grandbaby is a smooth baritone, he claims, and he is. I’ve heard him. Like taking your finger down a silk shirt from collar to tail. He did church solos for a time. “Wouldn’t that good?” he says.
“You take good care of me,” Mae says jagged, trying to mend her breathing. “But I don’t want you to.”
“What you mean you don’t want me to?”
“I want to be on my own,” she says. “I don’t want to have to fuck an old man.”
Nothing else gets said, and I get down to the rug where the crack at the door is, where the sound is.
Then, “You don’t like me?” he says, a thundering in his voice. “You don’t want to be with me?” And he’s huffing. “Get out. I’ll find somebody else. Go. Somebody who wants what I am and what I got.”
“Please, Grandbaby,” she says. “Don’t turn away. Sometimes I say the truth of what I’m feeling a little too loud. But I’m grateful. My parents never took care of me this good.”
“I’m good for something,” he says. “I take care. All I am, maybe.”
“You more than that,” she says. “I promise.” And his body must’ve turned, again, cause they’re kissing or she’s kissing his wide back, something calm like the sound of brushes brushing, and the sniffling and the crying all done and the string in me still broken.
I swim down in the pond. It’s the day before the last day of school. All the other kids fidgeted in their seats before the last bell, chomping at the bit like horses for summer—We’re going to have fun! Like summer could be plucked up easy by the handful, and if held just tight enough, never let go of.
I dive to the bottom, scrape my hand across, searching for Leafygirl, trying to do what the chains and hooks couldn’t. But I cannot bring her up. Just dirt, and limbs, and a gugrly bottle of beer. Grandbaby used to toss in his beers, but he won’t come to the water since she drowned. All the time I’m diving, Flynt’s on the shore yelping for me to come back. He doesn’t like water cause it makes him seasick. Turning old has made him this way.
“Get out of there,” Mae says. She’s on the bank patting his neck with one hand, cigarette in the other. And I do what she says.
First thing, she slaps me. Hard. “Don’t drown on me and leave me with Grandbaby.”
“I was just looking for Leafygirl.” The hot sting swirls and pricks until the whole of my face is numb and smelling of wet dog fur.
“She’s gone,” Mae says. “Completely, gone.”
I start to say something about what I heard last night. I start to tell her to take it back what she said about Leafygirl, but two giants are swirling up the bank.
“Going on beds,” Mae says. “They put their babies there.”
I tell her to come with me, and she does, and I pull her hand.
“What’re you doing?” She yanks away.
“Nothing bad,” I tell her and take her hand, again, put it in the cool water where the giants keep turning. They bump against us. Whack us with their tails and slide across our fingers. And Flynt wants to get in, too. He roots his paws at the edge, but this is all he’s willing to venture. We tell him to shush when he barks.
“That’s a good feeling,” Mae says and laughs. “Which I ain’t had in a while. Lord,” she says, “thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I say in my deep God voice, which is more like a preacher’s voice cause I’ve never heard God. She slaps my face but lighter this time, and we giggle louder.
After supper, after I’ve tried to fall asleep and can’t, Mae slips out of Grandbaby’s room and gets underneath my covers.
“I’d still like to go to school,” she says.
“Last day’s tomorrow,” I say. “Too late this year.”
“I still want to go.”
“Then go,” I say. “In the fall.” I snuggle in to her. If she’ll let me, I’ll teach her how to catch fish with a shiner this summer.
But Mae shakes her head, rubbing her nose against the back of my neck. She smells of white smoke and sweat. “Got to take care of Grandbaby. My parents need the money. I need the money. The extree he give. I’ve never had a place and I do here. Say no more,” Mae says. “Just want to hold you and feel what it’s like, someone going to school. That’s a good feeling to have, when you’re nervous and wanting, and someone you care about has what you want. So you let it rub off of them onto you.”
I try to be quiet, let her rub. “What’re you going to do with the extree?” I ask her, whispering.
“Get out. Far away from here.”
“What about me?” I say.
“I’m not taking you,” she says.
“Leafygirl didn’t take me with her either.” And the string that had untangled, had pulled from my toes to the top of my head, and the warmth my back had felt leaning against Mae, all turns to ice, heats up, and sweats away. Her words and mine a betrayal.
I try to scramble out, but Mae pulls me back, clinches me stronger.
“Leafygirl couldn’t take you to that place she went,” she says. “That was her own struggle. I’m the one who needs you now.”
“I’m not yours,” I say. And I pull harder, shake loose, hurry off the bed.
She says wait, but that word isn’t good either. And she flips onto her back, crosses her arms, gazes at the edges, the center, the full width-length of the ceiling. Then slowly, she opens her arms, then her hands, the fingers, to the edges of the bed. The covers are about halfway, wooly looking. Enough of a moon to see her breasts, smaller than Leafygirl’s. Her collarbones rise, dip, rise. “You’re right,” she says, all calm and dull, “you are your own.”
Part of me wants to snuggle up, but I can’t figure where to place my body around her now. Cause it’s just Mae and the moon and not me. I’m no longer invited here.
So I creak open my door, shut it, easy-foot my way into Grandbaby’s room. He’s snoring, and the room smells like his bedpan smells. He’s on a pill from the doctor and won’t wake up.
I lift the window. Out there is the pond. Enough of the moon to make the water into a flat blue shadow field. I try to find the line Grandbaby pointed Sheriff Stoops toward, the X where Leafygirl is now. If I could, I’d peel away the water, every layer, like quilts pulled off a bed until I saw Leafygirl and all the flecks I stole from the sun and sent down.
My mother lived quietly. We don’t have a TV cause she didn’t want one. Used to at night, the two of us sat on the couch, and she held me. This she did after opening the door, so all the sounds—crickets in the fall, toads in spring, just the pines shushering always—carried through the screen to us, her arms around my shoulders crooked and loose, and me quiet with her, too, my arms around her belly, not wanting to go to bed. Not wanting to go free just yet. Always between the not wanting of one thing and the not wanting of another, is the fear of wanting. Always. But if I could, I’d peel back every layer of water, I’d gather up every fleck and bone and shell and stick down in the caves and let them burn me, cut me, make me shiver. Then I’d put them all back where they should be.