I stand on the porch this morning, plastic-clad paper at my feet, white cat on the far end of the wheelchair ramp railing, and gaze above my head into the pitched roof of my porch. I draw in a long, cleansing breath of rain-washed air and listen to the faint stirring of some one's wind-chime, high and gentle.
Hearing confounds me. The gentlest note in an elevated range might reach me, but a murmured endearment at a low register will not. At times when ambient noise scrambles to claim my focus, I hear nothing and everything. A voice can carry down a corridor with crystal clarity; and a whisper beside my ear can be incomprehensible.
The man who built the porch on which I stand has a commanding voice, once familiar to local theatre audiences and radio listeners, resonant and sure. Remembering its timbre, I draw another gasp of air and find myself standing not on my familiar porch but in the large kitchen of our home in Jasper, Arkansas.
The Buffalo River ran behind that house, at the bottom of a sharp drop at the back edge of our property. We rented the place. It stood on the northwest side of the town square, next to City Hall. We selected it because of its large underground garage, where saws, and lumber, and the tools of a carpenter's trade could be stowed and used.
He and I had been married for six months when we came to live in that small town. We shared its few scraggly streets with five hundred sixty-four people by the most recent census count, though six-hundred eight tapped into the water line. Our house stood one spot beyond the city treatment plant, and on water purification days, the chlorine smell made me gag and I could not shower.
By the summer of 1988, I knew that country life held no charm for me. I struggled with the vagaries of small town practice. Though our house sported a separate entrance to the room which I used for an office, everybody came to the front door and sat in our living room to share their stories. I wrote their wills; and cobbled together the shambles of their finances after divorce, and when I could not stand the mundane though poignant demands on my talent, I volunteered to represent people in chancery court whose lives had come undone.
Chester, my husband, did freelance set design that year. It had not gone well. We left Little Rock when a change in administration at the theatre company which had lured him south resulted in the wholesale replacement of the entire staff, including their most recent hire, my husband. So to Jasper we came, where he owned mountain property and had always wanted to relocate, and we staunchly tried to settle into life so different from any we had known that our folly must have been apparent to everyone but us.
And so we made our way to that summer, when we could sleep with doors and windows wide, catching the wind that lifted the day's stale air and sent it on its way. The neighbor's rooster awakened us before we might otherwise have wanted to face the daylight, and we pulled ourselves through the silence of spoiling marital discord surrounded by the bold beauty of the Arkansas Ozarks.
I frequented the library in the basement of City Hall. Though I had read most of the novels on its shelves, I found a few that bore re-reading. I grew to know the mayor, a woman whose face I can still picture but whose name I cannot recall. She ran the city of Jasper with thoughtful delicacy, and that summer, her four-year-old granddaughter visited her at City Hall most afternoons, playing on the tile of the reception room, searching for pretty rocks on the edges of the small ravine, thoughtless and simple in the ways of the very young.
On one such day, I hovered in the kitchen, disturbed by silence, wishing I had friends to visit or pubs to frequent, music to hear, smoky air to inhale. As I shifted the pans around, waiting for inspiration regarding our dinner, I heard my husband's voice, calm, but urgent, with the pitched resonance of controlled projection: One word, Corinne.
I tilted my head, listening to the ever-present tinnitus in my bad ear, straining, wondering if my lonely imagination had created the call. Then his voice came to me again: Corinne, come now. Corinne. Corinne. I started towards the door when he spoke a third time, from within a hollow block of stagnant summer air: Come slowly. Bring the .22.
One learns, in the country, in the mountains, to keep the weapons loaded. The children are taught to clean, load, and carry a rifle, and to respect both the power and danger of guns. Though I had been raised in St. Louis, I had lived in Arkansas long enough to understand the foreboding portent of Chester's directive, and I got the Winchester and exited the house, catching the screen door behind me so that its closing made no sound.
He stood outside the perimeter of our yard, in the driveway of City Hall, his back to me. In front of him, four or five feet away, crouched the mayor's small, delicate granddaughter. I moved, with unaccustomed stealth, barely stirring the dry grass beneath my feet. As I drew close to him, I saw the creature that hovered between my husband and the little girl: A snake, born of the ancient lands around us, foreign to the cracked concrete, as lost and as frightened as the child whom it faced. Poised, considering, frozen in the silent moment that it had taken me to respond to my husband's urgent summons.
Chester raised his arm and reached behind his body at the same instant that I lifted the rifle and placed it into his hand. With swift, noiseless motion, he brought the rifle to his shoulder, squinted, took aim.
In that last, long second, with the girl's pale blondness rigid in the summer air and me stock-still behind my husband, the snake swiftly shook its rattle and raised its head, whether to strike or make a better target, I cannot say, for just then, my husband squeezed the trigger, and the snake fell dead.
Chester dropped the rifle and stepped across the endless span of time and space to the child, bringing her body into the span of his arms, over the fallen foe, whose only real crime had been to venture into a world in which it had no genuine chance of survival. I released the breath that I did not know I had been holding, and dropped my shoulders. Bending, I retrieved the gun, and went back into the house, leaving Chester to tell our mayor how close she had come to one of the most brutal lessons of country life.
Twenty-two years later, I stand on the porch that Chester built, whose design had been conceived and nurtured by my second husband, and approved by an architect friend. I glance down at the concrete surface of the floor beneath my bare feet, but nothing lies in front of me other than a trampled cricket. A passing car honks, and I hear the skitter of the small animal frightened into motion by the sudden sound. My reverie broken, I turn, and go into the house, where the coffee has finished brewing, and the computer awaits me.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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