by MB Sellers
His smallness was exacerbated by the wide-brimmed straw hat that was crooked low over his face. At first, I thought it was black, but the sun beat down and I shielded my eyes and at once it was red. A deep ruby. So deep that it turned black once more. He clutched at his cane — a sleek, mahogany — the only thing that wasn’t legends old about him. His hat tipped so that I could only make out one cheek and one eye — a startling, oppressive gray that looked well and weird between the crinkles on his face. Spider hands. A deeply hunched back that still held a surplus of dignity. He gave a grin to no one in particular, teeth flashing a mangy yellow, parted neatly in the middle by two gold incisors. His eye so milky that the pupil looked distorted — too small for the eye’s oblong shape, so it got lost in color like a rowboat at sea.
“Daughter,” he said.
I mopped a wisp of red hair out of my face, and locked my knees together in a strange impulse of respect for this old-timer. My hair had turned feral, wild like the azalea bushes at home, and still smelled like the hospital, taken to sticking itself across my left eyebrow like a head wound. I stood there, conscious of my dusty, hospital dress, my hair — tress by tress — in dizzying motion, and the sweat that tugged at my face like a mask.
“A long journey, it seems.”
It was neither a question nor a statement, but regardless, a reply hung there. My mouth was dry, rusted shut. I stared, hating myself for seeming foolish, mute, in front of this man who I knew, without question, could provide answers.
He began to hobble towards me. His right leg stuck out at a duck foot’s angle, reminding me of a hockey stick. But he was agile, still, directing his cane straight into the softest spots of dappled Mississippi mud. He aimed without looking, his salient eye fixed on me, and I stood there waiting. And his hat — oh, that damnable, beautiful hat. It changed again with each reflection of the Southern sun.
“Was it long?”
“So long,” I said. “And still not finished.”
I breathed out in tangible relief. Words, it seemed, were a commodity after all.
“Do you want it to be?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Something is wrong with it.”
“So, will you leave now? Sacrifice its life for your death?”
I failed at a response and shrugged. His one eye appraised me. I saw the pupil dilate a millimeter, and felt embarrassed.
“My job is not to judge. My job is to ensure a passage.”
“A successful one, I hope?”
I tried a sly smile, a bartering of false suggestions — cuteness — the very thing I put to practice with old men and strangers.
“That isn’t up to me, Daughter.”
“But they said its neck was possibly broken. And there were other things. Abnormalities. Isn’t it kind to let that type of thing pass from the world without pain?”
“Is it the thing’s pain that you are concerned about?”
He turned and began to walk back towards the crossroads, abruptly finished with me. I was surprised, expecting a righteous speech, a thrusting in the correct direction that absolved me from any choice of my own.
“Hey! Where’re you going?”
“I’d suggest you decide. Your husband is tired.”
I watched him hobble back to his corner of the roads. It took far longer than it had for him to reach me. But finally, he was there, stooped, again, to a child’s height. He breathed in, and sank lower into himself and was still — a grey scarecrow.
“Fucking psychopomp,” I said, irritated and disappointed, tears and dust muddling my vision. I stepped backwards, eyes screwed up against the elements and emotion. A red noise rang in my ears.
I was back in the hospital room. My legs, twisted in bedclothes, were swollen and a thick sheet of perspiration sealed hospital gown to skin. Daniel was standing on my left side, twisting my sticky fingers into little knots, and then stroking them out, flattening them against his large, brown palm.
“Hello,” I said.
“You passed out on us again, Lorelai.”
“The doctor just left to see about options. A C-section isn’t possible because she’s somehow wedged herself nearer your spine.”
My mind was a step slower than usual, and forming words took a decent amount of trouble.
“Daniel, this — thing. It’s not our daughter.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you hear him?”
“Baby, you’re exhausted. And that medicine. Jesus — they really pump it into you.”
“You really think we could be happy raising something like this?” I asked, ignoring his soothing tone.
He started to say something, but my vision took on a marbled hue of green and amber. There was the nurse, and that pleasant humming of needle in vein. Her hands, brumal on my skin, were quick in their movements. Daniel’s lips moved, smiling down at me, rubbing my shoulder through the thin material. Like he could possibly understand anything.
It was the night that Father died, and Daniel and I had been upstairs asleep in my childhood bed with the dowdy, chintz wall draping my father’s now divorced, second-wife he’d claimed was charming. After she’d realized that an old Southern name didn’t always mean a trust-fund, she’d taken off, but not before arranging orders of ornate and vaguely phallic accouterments to decorate our large, decidedly dilapidated old home.
The wind had picked up — it had been the kind of sleepy hot earlier in the day that nestled itself in the corners of rooms like a lazy, sun-fed cat, eliciting yawns from even the sharp-eyed day nurse. I’d kept the window halfway open because my room, adjacent to the attic, had the habit of heating up to over eighty degrees.
Slipping on a pair of wool socks in case of splinters, I descended the stairwell, gingerly avoiding the worn-in step that let out a drunkard’s shout when stepped on. It had always spooked me when I was a teenager, slipping in past curfew, smelling of cigarettes and maybe a boy’s too-strong cologne. I was giddy, then, and extra sensitized to being caught with kisses blushing from my cheeks, moon-mad with night activity, the scent of whiskey caught up in my hair.
Father had demanded to be placed in his study after the doctors told us that there wouldn’t be a next August. We’d hired a day nurse to exhibit him meals and pills (which for the most part, I assumed he spat out into napkins, later). They were all large and neon in hue, all kept in the same tactile orange and white pill containers. The nurse we’d hired had arranged them in a line across my father’s desk, each with a sharpied “D” for day and “N” for night. They looked like miniature Easter eggs, which struck me as hilariously sad. I had half the mind to hide them around the house in an effort to spark Father’s attention. But I wanted him happy, even if it shortened his life. Father was never one to hope for a lost cause.
“If I’m around my books, and I have you, dear child, to talk with, I don’t give a damn about reaching seventy.”
He would be seventy next month. Daniel and I moved in shortly after the prognosis, setting up residence in my childhood spaces and bumping lives more than we had ever before in the three years of our marriage. We turned my playroom into Daniel’s makeshift office. He was a moderately successful children’s book author that had the habit of making the most extraordinary messes. I found papers in the bathroom, under the bed, crinkled in shoes, resting in lamp shades. It was a strange living condition, one that I constantly felt trapped in by the two men in my life.
Deciding on a glass of warm milk, and a quick check in the study, I opted for the check-in first. Father usually slept through the night. I entered the hallway and came to the white-washed ivory door that held for me all the instances of groundings, scoldings, long nights spent with a book and window thrown open to the katydids and river noises. Opening it, I stopped. A figure stood before my father’s hospital bed. In the shadows, it amalgamated with the textures of the room, but kept a contiguous form that didn’t waver. Like the darkest shade in shadow. I’d forgotten my glasses on the bedside table, so I squinted trying to make out a face, half-convinced the Nyquil I’d taken earlier was merely messing with me.
It moved to stand at the foot of my father’s bed, and bent itself so that both of its palms were pressed against my father’s feet.
“Hey! Get away from him.”
My voice sounded hoarse, and I cleared my throat and walked into the room, striking my toe against the door. I angled myself against the thing. We formed a perfect triangle, and I glanced at my father who was still asleep, one hand thrown back against the pillow in a brutal slant. The figure rose up again, and turned to me. In the place of a face, there was an absence of light. He had the shape and stature of a man. Broad shoulders that sloped into strong curves, arms by his side. He demanded his presence in the room, like a wayward nucleus. He approached me.
“Who are you?”
The thing was silent, but now, also distracted. I felt the intensity of a gaze that I couldn’t begin to locate. It stepped closer, and laid a hand on my shoulder. Flinching, I tried to draw back, but my body was inert. He drew me towards him in an embrace that encompassed me.
I felt imaginary, breathless as if I’d just stumbled; I was jolted into something far deeper than a dream. Little thrills sparked nerves; clouds of mahogany hung over the periphery of my vision. But there was a steady stroke of calm that kept everything at bay. I was drenched by him, soppy and air-light in his touch. Though deadened physically, I still had the lucidity of thought and understood that he was Death, come in the form of something reverent and glorious to see. It was a gentle crack and diffusion and I understood that this was far more than physical perimeters; mere sexuality ceased to exist. It was a percolation of him to me, a meeting, a conjoining of a negative and positive.
And after what seemed many hours, he let me go. It was a swoosh, a sudden departing, and he was back at my father’s side and I felt cold then and I knew it was time for me to leave. Light had begun outside. I walked over to my father and laid a hand on his scrunched brow. He seemed to sense the warmth of my hand, our presence in his beloved room. I wished his dreams well, bending to kiss him on both cheeks. It didn’t seem respectful to cry in Death’s presence.
“What have you done?” I asked the darkness and myself.
His answer took the form of my father’s life.
I walked out of my house, then, leaving Death to do his work. I knew in a couple of hours I’d have to feign surprise and grief, and I knew, in time, it wouldn’t be me faking it. But for the time being, I stepped into the dawn and sat on our big, outdoor porch. I rocked myself and drew my t-shirt closer to me against the surprising chill. It was then that I heard it: haunting, willowy in tenor. It was the wail of a creature, a portentous cry that made my nerves sing. It came from the direction of the large magnolia tree that I’d climbed in as a child, and kissed in as a young woman. I cursed myself again for not thinking of my glasses.
Standing up, I walked out into the lawn to stand just before the great tree. The sound was still there in the air, and it began its hymn again, higher-pitched and desperate. I stretched out my hand in offering — a good forty-five degree angle from my body, and willed myself to see the thing.
The whip-poor-will descended from its branch, and settled lightly onto my palm. She had mottled plumage — a mixture of gray and brown. I knew it to be a female because her chest lacked the white splotch of a male. Hers was a soft buff that stood out against the black of her throat. She sang again, and her short beak opened wide so that I could see the pink of her tongue, and those polished, inky eyes.
Unconsciousness revisited, and I was shifted, again, to the dry, red road where I’d seen the old man. The air was stagnant, and the combination of heat and mud made me sick to my stomach. Here, at least, the thing inside of me was still.
“I don’t know what to do, old man,” I said.
“You’ve relied too much on the actions of others to dictate your own.”
He was still crouched at the crossroads, and I pushed myself upwards, steadying my weight by spreading my legs a good pace apart.
“If you decide to come with me, you won’t come back.”
“What about your husband?”
“I love him. But I don’t know if I can love this thing.”
I thought of Daniel: his big, warm hands, the way he’d always, always wanted children. Even before we’d married, he’d talked of our future — beyond the plural of we to us and them. And I had been alright with these thoughts. They were future plans — vague, scraggly things that I thought about before falling asleep after too much wine. I gently nudged them away — farther and farther — and he had been okay, too, with this. We were young. We had time.
“It is part of you.”
“But not of him.”
He looked at me. Once again, I saw the milky eye rolling in his joint. It unnerved me. It was like an opalescent moon, a small one — maybe Jupiter’s — that you rarely give much thought to.
“You have been touched by Death in the living. Are you sure that It is so inviting that you would throw what is yours away?”
“Why did I see him — It — at all?”
“Questions don’t account for It. But It always allows a decision.”
“How very noble.”
I was disgusted, and suddenly quite sick. I vomited, then, into the middle of the road. My insides made a gray splash in the mud. The liquid filled an imprint of my foot that looked like a backwards California.
“It’s coming, you know. The doctors have found a way. And it will be a natural thing. Born of this earth, a woman’s belly.”
“Nothing’s natural about this!”
I choked on a heave, and glared up at him.
“This pain. This senseless pain. I don’t even understand how this happened.”
“I am not here to answer your questions about life. I am here to guide you across if you so have it.”
I turned away from him, heaving again and hating him.
I would have traded this pain for death, gladly.
“She’s coming,” the doctor said.
He had the type of glasses that reminded me of those NASA scientists you see in textbooks —their rigid mouths sloppy and hung open or occupied by a drooping cigarette, watching their rocket break the atmosphere.
I felt as if she were breaking my own. I clutched the metal railings, legs splayed, the perfect picture of womanhood. I felt darkness in every angle of my body. I looked up at Daniel, and his face, framed by the white delivery robe he wore, was jagged; his features seemed out of order somehow. There was no control; only a wild, skittish quality that wracked my body.
“You must keep pushing, Mrs. Amos. She is very small,” said the doctor.
“You must, dear. You’re halfway there already,” said the nurse.
I was dizzy with drugs and displacement. I could still see the old man with my inner eye, looking on at me calmly, watching life happen with little concern. I pushed and pushed again, straining my neck to look into myself and see.
My child was born on the 28th of July. It died on the 29th.
She was small of frame, like they said. So small, a whole five inches. She had auburn hair and the loveliest of eyes. They were a deep, yawning green that looked black and still in certain lights. She seemed to know us already as she nestled into my arms. I felt as if I were hugging a doll.
Daniel’s face was stricken from the moment she finally emerged. I took it for a mixture of relief and surprise, a clap of fatherhood flung on him of sorts. But as I extended my neck with the last bit of strength I could muster, I realized what held his attention, what caused him such horror.
Our child was plainly beaked. Her lips formed a sharp-pointed oval that extended beyond her baby nose into a tight apex. They were not the pink of baby, nor the pale of newborn, but a strange lily-livered yellow that shone with my insides.
MB Sellers is a recent graduate of The University of Mississippi, where she majored in English and cocktails. She works for Fat Possum Records. In her spare time, she reads a book a week, obsesses over the details of Sylvia Plath’s life and experiments with blogging. This story is inspired by a blues anthropology class that got her interested in myths in music. “I did a good bit of research on the crossroads and decided I wanted to tie all of those elements into a Southern gothic story,” she says. “Legba is the old man at the crossroads, who ushers souls to the afterlife.”