by Susie Sherrill
Zelda carefully creases the waxed paper around the still warm biscuits. Her fingers coordinate slowly and gracefully; pinky fingers rising to balance high as her other fingers perform the job like a spider weaving its web. Now her hands mirror each other and roll the paper over three times across the top. If she is slow and painstaking, watching and perfecting each movement, she can forget the constriction in her throat and the pain tearing at her heart.
Her husband, Glen, came in late last night after she was asleep. This morning he could not even stay to eat the biscuits she had made for breakfast. Since their marriage, her biscuits had been their manna; a pure, fragrant communion they received together. When he had come in the kitchen, his eyes were seeing something inside his head, not looking into her own. He was impeccably dressed, as usual. He wore the jeans and shirt of a chicken farmer, but he never seemed to get dirty, though his clothes were soft and faded from many washings.
“I’ve got to go to Momma’s,” he had said. “I told her I’d be there early to feed her chickens.”
“Sit down and eat your breakfast first. I made biscuits. The chickens can wait a few minutes.” The deepening in her voice was barely perceptible as suspicion painfully shredded her trust in him. His eyes focused on her face, and she noticed his head shook minutely. Then he said, “Remember, I love you, baby.” A deep kiss quelled her protest further, and he was out the back door, leaving the blinds to rattle and sway. She heard the vroom of his motorcycle’s engine igniting and listened as it receded and disappeared. They had picked out the motorcycle together one happy day, but since the baby had been born, now only he rode it.
She shrugs and shivers to try to rid herself of her distress. Picking up the neat package of biscuits, the waxed paper fogged with the moisture of their heat, she lays them precisely in line with the other food stored in the freezer then slams the door.
They had grown up together. She could not remember a time she did not know his face. She remembers when she first lifted her finger to his forehead to trace his spiral cowlick, its blondness mirroring her own. She giggled at his blue eyes, wide with surprise. Soon her touch to his temple became the symbol of their pairing; such a familiar ritual: he would continue talking with his hands on his hips as she drew the spiral, or he might run off after a ball in mid-circle.
Then, the age came when he knocked her hand away and angrily said, “Quit, Zelda, leave me alone.” She laughed and pointed her rotating finger toward his head and watched him run away.
At puberty, she watched him approach and gasped at the growing changes in his body and its resonance with her own. Now tall, his jaw had squared, and the planes of his arms and shoulders had rounded with muscle. She lifted her arm to trace the golden circle on his forehead as it shifted through the light, but a deep shiver, a pleasure and a warning, vibrated through the buds of her breasts. She wanted to trust him with these tender feelings, but caution lowered her arm. Looking up at him, she saw him reading her face. He waited. She raised her arm again, feeling cool air on her armpit. With her touch to his forehead, his arm passed under hers, and he lifted her chin and kissed her. The resistance went out of her and she lay in his arms.
Her attraction to him gradually took control of her body. She watched her heart burst its boundaries in response to him. Her movements possessed, her body intertwined with his as she pulled herself up to feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek.
In the hayloft, they had wrestled, tumbling through softly crackling straw with its clean, sweet fragrance in their nostrils. They had burrowed under it until they were inside a cave of yellow light from the afternoon sun that came in the window at the end of the loft.
As they rolled, she slid through his hands, playing at an escape, twisting back and forth, against and then away from him, so that his hands spiraled down her body and rode over the mounds of her breasts. An aching pleasure pulsed deep below. On the next twist his hand moved across her belly and came to rest over her crotch through the thinness of her underpants, then slipped inside. She stopped twisting. Her breath came hard and blew a hole in the cave of straw so she could see the shorn field, stray chickens pecking, the haystack cones and the blue sky of autumn.
She felt him cup his hand there. Was he somehow protecting her? She pushed herself harder against the pleasure and felt him shiver and his body go momentarily weak. Then his strength rose hard, and she opened herself to him generously. They were barely fourteen when it happened, barely sixteen when she became pregnant. Now, they were eighteen, married with a son, whose golden cowlick gleamed.
The joy of it all! She inhales the memory of their life together: building their house and starting their own chicken business with two long metal houses on a plot of property given to them as a wedding gift by his parents, and every morning she made biscuits. So sweet, she thinks, and inhaled again to try to recapture what they had, but her happiness sinks with her exhale as she looks out beyond the chicken houses, the fallow fields, into the gray sky of winter.
She recounts the story to herself again as she has so many times. They had truly been of one flesh. He had been happy too, and grateful, so grateful that he wanted to repay his Creator. He felt called to the ministry. They lived in a world of grace. They showed their gratitude with obedience and were partnered in their dedication to God. Every night they read the Bible together and tried harder and harder to be obedient to the Word.
“I will be perfect, even as my heavenly Father is perfect,” he said with his head held high. They sat on their brass bed with the big Bible open, half on his lap, half on hers. The circle of lights from the bedside lamps overlaid the book.
“Yes, my love,” she had said. “You are already perfect to me.”
“No, I’m a sinner!” he insisted.
“We all fall short,” she reassured him.
“I don’t want to fall short. God calls us to be perfect.”
She felt a quake within her, but it receded when she turned her trust toward him and toward God.
Two months later, sitting on the bed with the Bible, he had hesitated. She looked at him and felt the quake again, seeing his head bowed, his body rocking, and tears escaping through tightly closed eyes.
“Honey, what is it?” she pleaded. She felt the prelude to a full earthquake.
“Zelda, the devil has tempted me, and I have been weak. I had the Lord’s grace, and now I’ve profaned it!” He drew in breath that grew into a cry of agony.
“What is it? What is it?” she turned to grasp his shoulders to look into his eyes, but they remained squeezed closed. He shook his head.
“I love you, Zelda, since the beginning, but Jesse, but Jesse … ”
“Jesse, from the church?” Zelda felt her world shake. “Did you? Did you?” Sobs rocked his body forward and back, forward and back, while his head nodded up and down, up and down. A seismic right erupted down into the depth of her heart’s cave, cleaving their conjoined spirit.
“I don’t deserve to live,” he cried. “I betrayed you and my God.” She was swallowed by the earthquake within and landed in the burning fire of anger.
Now, it is a month later. He swore to her in a white-knuckled agony that he would never give in to the temptation again: “I swear to God and hope to die, if I ever betray you again.” She knew he meant it, but the spirit of happiness had flown. The biscuits were no longer the manna of their Heaven. He had refused them. Was it because he felt unworthy out of guilt or was he leaving to be with Jesse?
Now she hears their baby, a full year and a half, calling “Momma” and shaking his bed so that wood knocks on wood and his mobile jangles. Her heart resonates to the music of his voice, and she goes to him.
When she opens the door his cheeks plump and glow with a smile that reveals four tiny lower teeth. He holds out his arms and works his fingers in and out. Murmuring love, she cradles him with one arm and traces his spiral cowlick with an index finger. “Hello, Momma’s perfect boy.”
Just then the doorbell rings. She swings the child in a semi-circle over the railing of his bed; he opens his legs to land astride her hips. She turns, hearing the door open and the hollow sound of heavy shoes on the wood floor. Her father and brother met her in the living room. Her smile begins, but is forgotten when she sees that their heads are turned strangely down so that she cannot meet their eyes.
“Zelda,” her daddy says, now looking up at her from under dropping eyebrows.
“Let me hold Bruce,” her brother, Malcolm, says as he takes the child. She cannot read their behavior, but Malcolm does not speak to the baby. His concern is focused on her. She feels the tremor of a greater earthquake on the edge of her awareness.
“Zelda, I hate to tell you this worse than anything.” Her dad’s eyes grow wet. “Glen was in a wreck on his motorcycle, honey. He’s gone, Zelda. He’s gone to meet his Maker.”
Zelda watched a tear run from her father’s eye, and the light glints in it before it plunges down his cheek. The earth opens into blackness and she falls, and she wills herself to follow Glen, but when she sees the light again, Bruce is crying and her father is lowering her to the sofa.
Two months later, Zelda sits with her mother at the kitchen table of her childhood home. They string beans in silence in contrast to the clang of the pans Bruce has pulled out of the cabinet. Zelda glances up to see him bang the tops of the pots, trying to make a fit, then focuses on the snapping of the top of each bean in just the right place so that the string is still connected and can be zippered down its length to the other end without slowing her motion. She watches her hands readjusting to snap the bean into two or three pieces, depending on its length. She shuts out her son, who is absorbed in his revelation that the two sides of the roasting pan fit, and is clanging them together over and over.
She barely raises her head when her mother gets up saying, “I’m gonna put him down for a nap. I’m tired of listening to that racket.” Zelda hears but does not respond to the ascending protest of Bruce as “Grand Maw” scoops him up for his nap.
She does not know her mother has returned until she hears her speak. “Zelda, you have been absent from us since Glen died. What are you thinkin’ ’bout, honey?” Zelda lifts her chin, her eyes focusing in on her mother and the meaning of her words. She had not told her about Jesse, nor of her secret satisfaction that now Jesse would never have Glen.
She knits her brow and cocks her head slowly, thinking, then says: “Momma, I just can’t go on here without Glen. I been thinkin’ I just couldn’t live period, but now I’m thinkin’ I can’t live here anyways. This was our world, Glen and me. It’s not a world at all without him. It was perfect and now it’s all broken. I’m only half a person, or not a person at all. I can go through the chores like always, until it’s time to fix dinner. Then I have nothing to hold on to. I feel like I could fall off the earth. I can’t holler to him in the shed to ask him what he wants for supper. I can’t half remember myself what he likes, or even decide what to fix for my own supper, because I don’t have an appetite without him to cook for.”
Momma watches her intently as she says, “I know, honey. You always look like you’re moving through a dream. It would be hard for me, if your daddy died, but, Lordy, you and Glen … I see what you mean about just leaving, but you haven’t been anywhere to know how to live somewheres else. We been to Atlanta, but it’s strange, not a home-like place.” Zelda silently nods her head, then picks up the last bean and bites off the end, spitting it out in her hand.
Spring fails to draw Zelda out of the darkness of her grief, but by mid-summer, she is clamoring for the light. She runs into the neighbors’ overgrown field beyond the chicken houses. The weather has been suffocatingly hot and has only added to the oppression of her grief, but this morning, so early, with the sun just rising over the woods beyond, maybe she will touch her perfect life again.
The field is deep in daises and tall grasses. She holds her palms out to her sides, sweeping across their flower faces, as she walks toward the sun, praying, Lord, help me. Lift me out of this pain. You said you would never give me more than I could bear, and this is unbearable. The chasm within her feels like a physical wound, a jagged opening down her chest and across her belly. The daisies seem a weak cure for such pain.
She sinks forward and sits, her knees curling to one side. From here the daisies are as tall as her head. Hidden, she sniffs the sweetness of dried plant life and notices the berms with last year’s grasses fallen around them. Her interest rises, then bitterness returns. Yes, everything beautiful gets spoiled by my grief.
She straightens her legs and stretches out on her back, situating herself among the soft lumpy berms. From here there is another view. Looking up, she sees all the daisy faces looking up too, moving to and fro in the breeze. The stem of one daisy face close at hand is curled around and appears to be looking into her own, as if deliberate and sentient. She reaches up with a cupped palm and holds its face, looking deep into its golden center that holds a cluster of seeds before their flight into the breeze to grow into newborn daisies to worship the sun.
She turns on her side and looks into the forest of daisies and tall feather-stemmed grasses. From this view she sees round holes through the fallen grasses around the berms. She is curious, but, as if out of duty, she brings herself back to her grief and endures its pain in her belly, worn sore from repetition. If Glen were here with me, we’d be making love in this hidden place. If Jesse never happened, it would be perfect. I’d remember to bring a blanket, she thinks as she feels the itch and prickle of the plant life her body touches. She tries to feed on her fantasy of love, but it turns into the ashes of grief.
Curiosity again animates her, and she turns to ponder the holes, their presence hinting at the intelligence of animal life, maybe field mice, creating a maze of pathways, over many trips; the tawny-gold grasses are swirled to form the passages that the rising light reflects. She rests her head on the ground and peeks through the first hole at mouse eye-level and feels the urge to follow the maze. I suppose there are crossroads, so they can go right to the creek or left toward the Mabry’s barn.
She catches herself absorbed, so far from her habit of honoring Glen with her grief. She brings herself back to the loss and pain, but they no longer bind her. Fascination draws her toward the trail before her, and she breathes a sigh of relief.
“Zelda,” her mother calls. She hears her through the dream she’s having. She’s running through a maze of portals around the berms in the field. The dream has made it possible. In the dream, she has a knowing that Glen is there in spirit, surrounding her. The many tawny-gold passages are now blonde. She’s on her way, and even Jesse and Glen’s death and her grief have brought her here. She resists leaving the dream as her mother caresses her forehead and speaks. She opens her eyes.
“Remember our talk the other day, honey? I think you’re right. Your only chance for a life is away from here, where things are new, and you have to deal with them all for yourself and make your way. I have an idea. When I was at church today, they were talking about needing missionary teachers for the little Latinos in New Mexico. There is a Baptist minister out there who’s a friend of our minister Clyde. They went to seminary together. I talked to Clyde after church and asked him if that might be something you could do. He said he would see. Doing something with the church would give you something familiar. You couldn’t teach the higher classes without a degree, but you could teach the little ones.”
Tears rise to Zelda’s eyes. A surge of excitement with an undercurrent of fear move Zelda into a space of destiny as big as the sky. Even Jesse, even Glen’s death had led her to this place of a greater fittedness with all life, a greater perfection.
Susie Sherrill’s fiction has grown out of her interdisciplinary study of literature, psychology, and religion of the “universal human neurosis,” a phrase coined by Norman O. Brown in his book, Life Against Death. She has published in the academic journals ANIMA and Media and Values. Through fiction, she illustrates and observes the human condition and the dynamics of its transformation.