Monday, August 1, 2011

The Cleansing

I can see the sky through the open door in front of me. It’s just after noon but the sun isn’t out today so you can barely reckon the time. Clouds look like they’re floating just above the ground. Almost feels like they’re looking down on me, angry for the sin I done. A gust of wind steals through the door, smashing into my face and blowing my hat off my head. It’s not raining yet, but you can smell the promise of rain just a few minutes off in the wind. Like a lonesome sigh, that scent storms uninvited into my house and into my nose. The rain’s coming, one way or another.

The house is quiet. The only light comes from outside since we don’t light no lamps during the day time. The only sound I can hear presently is the thunder off in the distance and the wind tearing back and forth through the corn outside. I don’t know how long I stood there, staring out the door at the clouds gathering like a crowd of mourners at a funeral. After a spell I look down at myself. My boots are dirty like they always are but there’s no mud caked on them. There’s a small seam where she fixed them up a few weeks back. My breeches are much the same, a bit dirty but nothing beyond the usual; and likewise my suspenders and shirt. I stare at my hat as it rolls back and forth on the ground with each gust of wind. To look at me standing there, like a child that lost his Momma, you’d never know I just done what I done, except of course for the big red splashes across my chest and face and arms.

I can see my Daddy standing out on the porch, not more than a few feet from where I stand now, just as if he hadn’t died all those years ago. I can see him, plain as day. He puts his hands on his hips as he looks out over the cornfields and sighs. I can hear his voice, just likehe were standing right next to me, “Rain’s coming. Ain’t no stoppin’ it.” I blink my eyes and my father is gone. All I can see through that open door is the sky getting darker; and the wind seems more and more angry. Without much of a thought in my head, I begin shuffling out the door. The sound of my feet falling on the wooden floor is the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. Every tiny creak in the wood echoes like a choir in a big church. I step out into the breeze, which blows in bursts of warm and cold air without warning. Like there’s some grand fight happening in the air around me; like angels and demons are clashing sword against sword in a world of invisible struggle. I stop just off the stoop in the sand around our little wooden house. I look to my left where the road goes, disappearing against the black horizon. To my right stretching out as far as the eye can see, rows and rows of corn – ears ripe for the plucking. But there won’t be no harvest this year.

I left the shovel leaning up against the house just to my left. Without looking, my hand grabs the handle on its own – as if my arms were going about their own business without my knowledge. In a similar way my legs carry me forward, away from the house, out toward the family plot. It’s just up the hill in front of the house a ways, and one light gray cloud sits just at that spot on the horizon so that the headstones and crosses are outlined by the storm gathering above. Two headstones, one each for Momma and Daddy, sit side by side. They weren’t my folks’ dying wishes, but it was my wish to see them remembered with more than a twist of sticks. Two more grave markers, one a hand-carved wooden piece made by one of the carpenters in town for my sister who died in childbirth, and another one like it only much smaller for the child we lost with her. Seeing as how my sister and her baby were taken from us before their time, I decide to dig the next two graves beside theirs – because the bodies that will soon be in those graves were taken before their time as well.

I stab the shovel deep into the earth at my feet, and a rumble of thunder in the distance joins the deed. I toss each shovel-full of dirt up and away from the hole I’m digging, not caring whether it goes into a neat pile. Not too far beneath the surface, the ground becomes soft and moist – just enough to make digging a little easier. I don’t know how much time I spent digging and I don’t care to recollect. All I remember was stabbing into the earth in the beginning, and then standing above the two new holes in the ground, without a breath left in my body. Every bit of my body, every muscle in it, aches and cries out for rest but there’s no rest coming so I pay it no mind. I turn my head up to the heavens for just a moment, and breathe in deeply. I close my eyes, but the flash of lightning is so bright it lights up my eyes even when they’re closed. A clap of thunder explodes shortly after the flash and immediately after that, a single drop of rain hits me square between the eyes. Like some cold harmless bullet fired from a heavenly marksman, the drop slowly trickles down the end of my nose as I look down at the two graves. They stare up at me like gaping mouths in the earth, hungry to be filled and closed. With the rain-bullet marking me for damnation and the earth-mouths yawning up at me, I turn back to the house.

The sky is much darker now. You can see the clouds moving with the wind, hovering over everything and just waiting for a go at me. The face of our house seems sad, like it somehow knows what I done and is just as angry at me as the sky. Through the upstairs window I can see only darkness, but I know what’s inside that room. As I trudge back to the house, the wind tearing at my clothes like some wild animal, I remember the first time walking up to that house with her, bringing her over for supper with the family. I looked up into that window on that bright day and thought to myself that it would be wonderful if one day that window would be the window to the room we slept in together. I thought about how happy it would make me if I woke up every morning with that window by my side and her in the bed next to me. We could wake up together and stare out the window at our crops. We could sneak into our bedroom on Sundays and watch the kids play from that window. We could huddle underneath warm blankets when the winter came and watch out the window as everything was covered in a silent white. I remember thinking for an instant that maybe one day I would look out that window for the last time, my wife and children huddled around my deathbed. I would know that I had lived a good life and then my soul would leave up to Heaven through that window. But that’s not going to happen any more.

Each step back to the house seems heavier than the last, but I’m of a singular mind so I can’t really feel the pain in my muscles. All I can feel is the pain in my heart and my soul and my mind. I carefully place each foot on each step as I go back onto the porch and in through the door that the wind has kept open. Up to the left, the stairs look down at me as if to say “Don’t go up there.” But I have to; I have to go up there. My foot falling on each step slowly makes the wood creak and groan. The sounds are piercing. But I ignore them and keep climbing the staircase. The rows of pictures hanging on the wall to my left are filled with portraits and photographs of my family; my mother and father and their parents and their parents. As I reach the top of the stairs another flash of lightning lights up the windows, then a clap of thunder shakes the house so strongly I can feel the entire house groan against itself. Just in front of me is the door to that room with that window. The door is only ajar slightly and for just a spell, I think that with the door closed everything has started over and what’s in that room ain’t in that room no more. But I know better.

In another three steps I make it to the door. A gentle push and it swings open, knocking against the opposite wall gently as the whole scene lays itself out in front of me again.

There she is, lying on the bed.

Her face is peaceful and serene; she doesn’t move. If her eyes weren’t open, you’d think she was just sleeping. From where I stand at the door you can’t even see the blood. But two steps back into the room and all over her chest is that tell-tale splash of dark red. On her side, with her petticoat folded over on itself, you can’t even see where the ax bit into her heart. You can’t see where I hacked into her chest, slashing up the petticoat all the while. You can’t see how brutally she died, not with your eyes. As I approach the bed I see his body slumped over on the opposite side, the covers wrapping him up as he tumbled away from me in the scuffle. The look frozen on his face is more panicked, pained. It only took me burying that ax in his chest and then slicing his neck open to finish him off. And as I survey the scene once again, I’m put in mind of the fact that I killed him first and then turned to her. He tried to fight me, and stumbled away to bleed out in a few moments. The memory stabs back at me, pointing an accusing finger and reminding me that she didn’t fight. She didn’t struggle or even scream. She just laid there, calm and quiet, just like she always was; the very picture of gentility and grace. She knew how badly she hurt me, and she knew what I would do when I found out. And somehow she had already made peace with me, long before I burst in on her and my brother in my own bed. In that moment, she looked at me, the way she had when we first locked eyes in church. Everything, our whole lives, was held in that glance. To see it broke my heart more than knowing she had been unfaithful. Her eyes told me she forgave me for what I done, and my ax told her the same thing. My wife and my brother, adulterers, paid for their sins with their lives. I’ll leave God to judge the rest of it.

I pick up my brother’s body first. Carrying him in my arms like I would a woman, I turn and slowly march back out the door. His head rolls back and the cut in his neck tears a little bit. Almost all the blood already went out of him, what’s left is dried and caked around his throat with skinny red fingers creeping up the side of his face. His skin is pale and cold – I bring myself to look into his eyes. There’s nothing there. I walk back down the stairs and out into the wind again. The gusts now swoop down and pick up the sheets his body is wrapped in. Ripping and flapping in the wind like a bloodstained flag of surrender, the sheet is quickly torn from my grasp and goes writhing away in the angry wind. My brother’s body now bobs up and down as I keep moving towards the graves. In a moment, I reach the first grave and drop him in. His body crumples forward and lands at an unholy angle, the head tucked back under the chest as his legs and backside point back up towards me. I grab the shovel once more and cover the grave as quickly as I can. My brother’s body is gone in just a few minutes.

I turn back to the house once more and for the final time make the journey back into the house. As I get closer, I can hear something coming from inside that room. I don’t know what it is; I can’t quite make it out. It’s a sad sound, a mournful sound, a lonely sound. I quickly return to where I left the bloodied body of my wife and for the first time notice that a phonograph has been playing a record this entire time. I never noticed it before but as far as I can tell it’s been playing all along. I know this song. It’s by some fellow named Beethoven and it’s just a piano. I don’t remember the name of the piece but I remember that she said it was her favorite. It was called...something about…the Moon I think. I don’t remember.

I turn back to where my wife lies on the bed, soaked in her own blood. I take in the whole picture again, my eyes covering every detail. I kneel down to where my face is close to hers and kiss her cheek lightly. The sound of something hitting the window starts me a bit, and looking up at it, I can see a solitary streak of rain running down the glass. Another one strikes the window. And another. In a moment, the gentle pops of rain falling all over my house begins to edge its way into the music of my surroundings. The light reflected through the window paints a picture of raindrops on her face. It almost looks like she’s crying. I slide my arms up under her knees and behind her head, carrying her the way I did across the threshold on our wedding night. The petticoat falls away to reveal her gored body underneath. I can almost hear the Devil’s voice tell me to look again, to look at what I’ve done, but I don’t bother. I know full well what I’ve done; I don’t need to look at it or look away. The stain of this sin will still be on my heart long after the rain has washed these bloodstains off. Standing up with my wife in my arms, I make my way back down and out to the family plot for the last time.

Stepping into the rain, I feel a shiver run down my spine as the falling drops – nearly cold as ice – soak me and my blood-soaked bride. I can barely see the plot in front of me as the pelting rain falls so heavily that the entire world is shrouded in a dim haze. Each step I take toward the graves seems more difficult than the last, and it soon comes to mind that I’ve never been so exhausted in my whole life. My heart is beating so hard I’m sure it’s cracking the bones in my chest. In the slick mud, I lose my footing and slip and fall – she tumbles out of my arms and spills onto the ground. Summoning all the strength I possibly can, I struggle back to my feet and splash my way forward to where she lies. A little bit of her innards fell out when I dropped her; now dragging in the dirt. It sparks just a flicker of anger in me, and I find myself spurred to get her insides up out of the mud. Straining with every bit of vigor I have left in me, I rise slowly from the ground, beat upon by the rain falling harder and harder. Her head rolls back, her arms flail out at her sides as I raise her up out of the mud. With burning in my legs and arms and mind, I find the strength to take the last few steps to her grave. In my mind, I can hear that piano piece playing again, it seems to fit with the wind and rain and thunder and lightning.

I pause for just a moment at the brink of her final resting place. That mouth in the earth welcomes me again, begging to be filled. Turning one final time up to the sky, my sight punched away with the rainfall, I think that there’s something I ought to say. I feel the need to say a few words, but nothing occurs to me. My brother lies in the ground buried. My wife lies in my arms as dead as he is and as dead as I am. Her beautiful face is washed free of dirt and blood. The rest of her is covered in the mud and blood and rain running together to form unpleasant streaks of brown and red and white. I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing to say. One last thunderclap bellows overhead and in a moment I’m falling. I’m falling with my beautiful bloody bride into the hole I dug in the Earth for her. The rain lashes my back like a rush of fists trying to push me into the ground faster. With a sickening thud, our bodies crash into the thick muck of our shallow grave. With our faces turned toward each other, we lie intertwined in a ghostly repose – that sad piano song playing over and over in my head.

I don’t remember closing my eyes. I don’t remember what it was like to look at her knowing it was the last time. I don’t remember if it stopped raining or if the Earth just swallowed us up. I don’t remember dying. I don’t remember anything. The rain washed everything away.