Take up the Wayside by Catherine Carberry

Take up the Wayside by Catherine Carberry

Fiction, Vol. 6.3, Sept. 2012

I was now one of those women I had always envied. Secure and comfortable in my pregnancy, the plus-signed pee stick no more of a death sentence than a bad perm. I thought of all the discarded tests of the past, taken and then tossed in McDonald’s bathrooms and other people’s houses, wrapped tight in toilet paper like mummified relief. I had left dozens of them behind along state lines, all that soggy evidence of my body’s resistance against disaster.

I couldn’t believe that my body had cooperated so well, that it had waited for Greg and the lazy contentment of a married, childless couple, pumping another round into the cartridge and laughing at the devilish fear of their teens and twenties. Though, I suppose, I was laughing alone. Greg didn’t have a secret relationship with the pregnancy test aisle of Rite Aid, nor a private history of squatting over the puddles of public toilets and peeing with expert aim, one hand holding the smooth stick and the other pulling pantyhose out of the danger zone. He couldn’t have imagined my glee at unwrapping that pure white strip in our bathroom, casually leaving it to dry on the sink as I shaved my legs, knowing that the answer would not upend my life.

I was still reeling at my luck as I walked to the train station. I was going to the city to tell Greg in person over lunch. It was a delicious secret, and it would be mine for only a few more hours. There was a motor of excitement inside me, running faster than a hummingbird’s wings. I imagined how I would look in a few months, sitting smug with my hands folded on my swollen stomach, growing heavy with belonging.

My teenage self would have fainted with relief. I wasn’t going to be my mother, braiding a little girl’s hair while talking about everything she could have done. “Never,” she would tug, pulling on my hair, “have,” scraping a bobby pin over a loose wisp, “children,” snapping a rubber band over the frayed tail of the braid, sighing at her sacrifice.

The spell had been lifted, somehow. And I was still tiptoeing around it, waiting for a gargoyle of regret to leap on me from behind a door, fasten itself around my neck and embitter my happiness. The house and the ring around my finger were the two great luxuries that I allowed Greg to give me. Two months before, we’d moved from the city to Greg’s childhood home. His parents had made the inevitable southern migration, shipping all their things to a sinking resort built on swampland and propped up by optimistic layers of gravel and concrete. There had recently been an alligator sighting at the golf course. The residents all hid indoors, clutching baseball bats.

Our inherited house was an old Colonial. Next door, separated by a wall of firs that Greg’s parents had planted years ago, was a small, rose-shingled cottage that had sold for half a million. Greg’s mother had confided that it used to serve as the stables. That knowledge lent me a halo of superiority whenever we ran into the neighbors, she smug in her velour jogging suit and he desperately tan.

The only drawback to the new house was the ghost train. In the city you learn how to sleep through the ambulances and stray gunshots, the hobos dragging aluminum garbage cans across the street. But in the stark silence of the suburbs, any nocturnal sounds are suspicious. It had taken me all of our first month to not grit my teeth at the drone of cicadas and shrieks of other animals. But now it was all part of the outside world of white noise, that constant insect hum that convinced me that we lived somewhere more savage than the suburbs. In the morning you could find the cicadas’ discarded shells still clinging onto trees. I stepped on one once and it crackled like a dry leaf.

The ghost train was a different beast entirely. It passed behind the house at midnight, along the old rails that were only used for slow-crawling freights. The train carried all the glass bottles of New Jersey to a recycling plant somewhere up north. When it passed, you couldn’t hear the grinding wheels or the weight of the cars, just the tinkling of thousands of glass bottles rattling against each other. From far away it almost sounded like a music box jingle, but as it got closer, the delicate clinking would surge into a relentless, crashing roar. At first, I thought it had tipped over in an orgy of glass shards on the train tracks. I imagined the train flipped and spilling its crystals, the whole broken heap slicing up the moonlight into millions of tiny mirrors.

I’d have to come up with a more kid-friendly name than ghost train when the baby was old enough to be afraid. There was no one on the street, but this was common in our commuter town. The daily morning exodus left only housewives and kids behind, the breadwinners packed onto trains with their bagels and newspapers, sleep sand still in their eyes.

In the empty stillness of the morning streets, I could admit that the neighborhood was still new enough that I felt we were trying each other on for size. I could teach myself to be lulled by the ghost train, to make seasonal wreaths out of dried berries, but there was still the chance that the town could extinguish me, with the quiet and cruel tactics that small towns could wield.

I was hazy with thoughts of trains and newborns when my vision snapped onto something on the edge of a neighbor’s lawn, blooming like a flat flower where the grass met the sidewalk. From a block away I thought it was a deflated soccer ball, cast to the curb after being punctured by the plastic fang of a kid’s soccer cleat. But as I came closer, it seemed too spongy to be a toy. It looked like a model brain, an old Halloween decoration except for the shadow of a thick stem that disappeared in a crack of the sidewalk. I bent down just the slightest. I was mesmerized by the unexpected difficulty of placing the thing in a mental category of trash or toy. My eyes were strained and blurred at the dissonance of it. Pristine, mowed suburban grass and smooth paved road was punctured by this open sore. I nudged it with the tip of my shoe and when I withdrew, there was a small dent, as though I had punched a pillow. It had to be a wild mushroom, some vestige of the muddy underworld that pulsed deep beneath the minivans.

I kept walking once I had it decided, but I felt the spiders of black mold scurrying from the mushroom up to my shoe where they touched. I pawed at the grass. I tried to push away the rot and instead think of the growth inside me, the mysterious process that would somehow come to form silk-spun eyelashes and tender fingernails.

We would have to check the basement for asbestos and build a high fence to separate the backyard from the train tracks. I would do so much more than my own mother, who let me think that our spontaneous road trips were family vacations rather than fugitive sprints across the country. She never thanked me for giving her a reason to run.

I checked my watch. I was borrowing strength from the life that had sprouted inside me, struggling to contain a nagging feeling of being watched by something that hid in trees or under the sidewalk. There was a playground legend when I was young, concocted by a girl named Ginny who must have mistaken movies for religion. She had a story about demons hanging from trees by their tails, throwing stones and curses at the bad girls. I looked to accuse the nearest oak, but its bark was stripped and carved with a sentimental alphabet (AF+RD, MH+GY, DAVIE I LUV U) and stuck with chewing gum. I restrained a premature dread, half-expecting one of the devils’ stones to lodge itself into my skull. A phantom pain drummed above my ears.

I turned onto Mason Avenue, my heart like a clenched fist. A howl struck at the base of my spine and leapt up my vertebrae. I traced the waves of its shriek to the foamy jowls of a sinewy, jet-black dog. It stood in stark silhouette against the white wooden panels of a colonial mansion.

This dog had been bred for hunting or some other bloody pastime. Its legs were no fatter than the long whip of its tail, which snapped jerkily from side to side. Its mean head was black silk wrapped tight around a rabbit’s skull. I stared at it for an instant, lifted my chin to show my human defiance, and then turned and walked. I didn’t want to know if it was chasing me. Without realizing it, I held my stomach like a fragile vase.

I bent down and picked up a heart-shaped rock from someone’s Zen garden. I could spear the dog’s mean eye with the pointed tip if it came to that.

A neighbor’s dog had once bitten Greg, sinking its half-moon bite into his calf. The neighbor happened to be a lawyer, and when Greg rang the bell, the fresh blood seeping through his pant leg, the neighbor had five hundred dollars in cash and a waiver waiting for him. Greg had saved the envelope of cash, hiding it in a coat pocket in the attic. “For emergencies,” he shrugged. Things like this happened, just German Shepherds and petty bloodshed.

There was a colonial graveyard that I had to cut through if I was going to make the train. Normally I found a perverse thrill in imagining the skeletal world beneath my feet, but by now I felt only the hunt, the hair on my arms raised in a protective pelt. I was grinding my teeth to ivory knives in anticipation of another invasive fungus or a pack of hellish animals, their tails whipping in spastic unison.

The church bells were ringing, clapping out a strange melody. The notes met sooner than they should have and echoed long and hollow, like that resounding metallic pain after biting down hard on a fork. I climbed the crumbling steps to the graveyard and felt the muscles of my legs pull back, taut and uncompromising. I pushed them forward, ignoring the electric impulses of my animal instincts.

There was a wide tree that had swallowed two tombstones, one on either side. I could have sworn the bark was still stretching, that I could see it growing in front of me like a time lapse of the next fifty years. The tombstones were lifted from the ground, suspended from the tree’s strangling grip. The names on them had been wiped clear off, but rain-trampled American flags on the ground hinted at a pair of Revolutionary War soldiers. The ghostly footsteps of diligent boy scouts were trapped in the mud, fossils of good intentions. Greg told me that all the public school children had to do a report on the graveyard and the town’s history. He had once been here with a backpack filled with crayons and blank paper, making rubbings of the Pilgrim prayers and moon-eyed cherubs carved on the headstones. I squinted to read an epitaph. Clarissa Hawthorne had been laid to rest, and on her grave in curling script: “She faltered on the wayside/And the angels took her —-.” The stone had crumbled where I hoped the epitaph continued with “home.” Poor Clarissa with her cotton bonnet, snatched up by angels just because she hesitated, unable to make up her mind about living.

I heard the low rumble of an approaching train, but it couldn’t be mine. I still had time and just two blocks, and a husband and an apricot-sized animal beating out its burgeoning existence somewhere below my ribcage.

My feet were sinking into the ground as I walked, pushing up puddles of brown water. I wondered if anything of the whalebone corsets and porcelain brooches survived in the coffins underfoot, or if it was all decay by now. I needed to cut out the morbid thoughts before I found myself telling the baby about a ghost train heaped with brittle bones and gold teeth, shivering its way up the railroad. My mother taught me that you couldn’t always control your thoughts during pregnancy. “There were times I thought I was going to cut you out of me,” she had told me when I was young, still thinking that children don’t develop memories until somewhere around twelve. “You have no idea what it’s like, to feel like you’re being eaten alive by this thing growing inside of you,” she’d said, her eyes glowing with fear.

A willow’s branches hung to the ground in thick, grasping vines and I almost tripped as they curled around my toes. I still hadn’t seen anyone, but there would be a few people waiting on the train’s platforms. Fellow part-time workers and wives, maybe all carrying the weight of their own secrets to Grand Central Station, where they would finally exhale them into golden speech bubbles that lifted off the ground and floated to ecstatic in-laws in Florida.

I realized I didn’t want to tell Greg yet. The decision was quick and unexpected. I wanted more time to myself. It was my uterus, wasn’t it? I was the one cultivating a child who would someday belong no more to me than I did to my own mother. I deserved the extra hours of secrecy, of feeling that electric buzzing deep in my crimson folds. I would tell him when he came home, or tomorrow. If I changed my mind, I could take the next train. All day there were trains coming and going.

This morning I would give myself up to the war. I almost didn’t know where to start; there were so many things to collect and destroy in a backyard bonfire. I would have to take a screwdriver to the rails, send the ghost train shuttling off to the west.

As I walked to the back of the graveyard, the tall tombstones of former mayors and priests gave way to rust-colored stone markers for stillbirths and the poor. Beyond them there was a high fence dripping with honeysuckle. I wanted to go extract a drop of the sugar water and send the honeyed sweetness down to my core, a prize for the baby. I was stepping over a low grave when I saw it, small and naked like a plucked chicken. It was a kitten or baby squirrel, I reasoned as my stomach cramped and shot the morning’s coffee, still warm, up my throat.

A feathery wisp, curled up tight like a fist. Its innards had spilled out cleanly, a dainty teaspoon of blood as bright and sugar-glazed as cherry pie. It could have fallen from its nest, or leapt from a branch that snapped, dry and fatal. I wanted to touch it, pick out the burrs and dried leaves and wrap it up in a clean, warm sheet. Or swallow it, tuck it in with the child that was floating blindly inside me, and let it grow.

Fixed by Jennifer Breukelaar

Summer Rose by Heather Fowler

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