Authors: Stephen Wright
The bearded ladies were
dancing in the mud. Outsized country feet that just wouldn’t keep still, strutting and reeling all along that slippery stretch of flooded road. Yellow paste clung to the hems of their gowns, flecked sunburnt arms and whiskery cheeks, collected in thick earthen coins upon the lacy ruffles of their modest chests like a hero’s worth of medals artlessly arranged. A cold rain fell and continued to fall over the lost hills, the yet smoking fields, the rude, misshapen trees where light—vague and uncertain—struggled to furnish the day with the grainy quality of a fogged daguerreotype. And at the center of this dripping stillness these loud animated women without origin or explanation, refugees from a traveling circus perhaps, abandoned out of forgetfulness or deceit or simple spite, the improvised conclusion to some sorry affair of outrage and betrayal, and as they danced, they sang and reveled in the rain, porcelain pitchers of ripe applejack passing freely from hand to unwashed hand, the echo of their song sounding harshly across that desolate country:
Soupy, soupy, soupy, without any bean
Porky, porky, porky, without any lean
Coffee, coffee, coffee, without any cream
On a rise back of the road stood a tall white frame house with long white curtains flung twisted and sodden from the open windows. A solitary blackbird perched atop the brick chimney, its beaded prismatic head jerking mechanically about. Several emaciated hogs rooted with audible vigor among the stumps of broken furniture, the puddles of bright clothing littering the trampled yard. From out the shadowed doorway flew an enameled jewelry box, bouncing once, twice, and off into the weeds. Followed quickly by an English plate, a soiled pair of ripped pantaloons, a clanging case clock, an oval looking glass that vanished upon an upended table leg in a burst of twinkling confetti—the house methodically emptying itself out. A pregnant sow shifted its spotted flanks, then resumed gnawing at the gilded frame of a painting in the grand style of Washington and Cornwallis at Yorktown. A bearded lady appeared at the door bearing before her a magnificent rosewood chair, the ruby red brocade of its seat and arms mounting up in lurid flame. The hurled chair landed upright in the mud where it continued to burn, to reduce itself to skeletal blackness, to pure idea. The bearded lady watched, haloed in the fires now leaping madly behind her. Curds of gray smoke were crowding out from under the cedar shakes. The house began to make a great whooshing sound. Flakes of wet ash blew down out of an opal sky.
The figure was already running when the bearded ladies glimpsed it, rushing slantwise down the clay slope as if materialized in midstride out of some adjacent realm of unendurable horror and perpetual flight.
“It’s a nigger!” cried one of the ladies.
She was young and barefoot and clothed in woolen rags. The clear terror in her touched even them standing there astounded for once in their ruined fashions and waterlogged boots. They watched agape this sudden apparition go bounding up the road like a wild hare and as the size of her steadily diminished in the misting distance an unaccountable rage grew large among them. Without word or gesture they moved off as one in raucous pursuit. It was a remarkable sight. Splashing and howling, jostling for position like whipped racing ponies, all bobbing beards and bonnets, stumbling on petticoats, sliding belly down into the mire, they presented a spectacle of hermaphroditic frenzy such as few could imagine. In a moment they were strung out wheezing in the muck. All but one. Audacious in a poke bonnet and bombazine dress, she rapidly outdistanced the rest, she hounded her quarry, she ran like a mother possessed, in a fit of chastisement, hard on the heels of an impudent daughter. Over the near hill and down, up the far hill and gone.
When at last the others found them, they were fallen and half-buried in the melting loam of an eroded embankment, their partially clad bodies so slathered with mud as to be almost unrecognizable, ill-formed creatures who had failed some evolutionary test. The bearded lady was settled in between the girl’s thin bare shanks and well into her work, the bonnet wadded fiercely into the girl’s bleeding mouth, a crude brand of the letter
gleaming on the lady’s exposed cheek. The girl’s eyes were closed. She might have been unconscious. The stragglers stood about in an uneasy huddle, turning to study now and again the dreary emptiness of the road, the earth, the sky, waiting like patient cattle in the rain, the tattered remnants of contemporary finery hiked to their armpits, buttons undone on the filthy breeches beneath, waiting politely in turn, their pink manhood carelessly exposed. Someone belched; another laughed. Soon the last of the pale light would draw off into the pine hills, shielding from hostile eyes the occupations of these costumed shapes in a starless obscurity, in the cloaked freedom of the night.
There was a gorilla in the White House and a long-tailed mulatto presiding over the Senate chamber and the dreams of the Republic were dark and troubling.
He was born in
the fall of the time at the end of time. The signs were plain for all with an eye to read: the noonday passage the previous spring of a great comet—“the marvel of the age!”—the swift echelons of croaking blackbirds flocking
for the winter, the collapse of the revival tent up in Rochester where, miraculously, not a single soul was harmed. Cows walked backward through the meadows; well water turned overnight into vinegar. Surely the advent of eternity was at hand. The vine was about to be reaped.
At dusk on the evening of October 22, 1844 (the date determined by the divine computations of an ex-sheriff and self-taught biblical scholar), the ascension-robed faithful gathered anxiously in churches and meetinghouses, along rooftops, the branches of trees and out upon high desolate hillsides—the nearer to glory—hymns and prayers keeping them through the final chill hours of that long last day until, instead of the Bridegroom, there appeared in the eastern sky the tentative kindling of just another dawn, proof that, for now, time would have no end, the body no release, and outside Delphi, New York, the disappointed crowd, waistcoat watches ticking steadfastly on, descended the knoll out of Briarwood Cemetery past the leafless, unscorched elms, the cold, unharrowed graves and into the welcoming arms of no company of saints but a taunting, unredeemed mob from town brandishing brickbats and stones.
So the trials of America were not to be so speedily concluded. Hours more must be drowned in sin, the sun darkened to a seal of pitch, before God would deliver this errant nation from the wickedness of history.
Nine days later Liberty Fish was born.
His mother, Roxana, did not expect to survive the occasion, the birthing chair having served all too often as a makeshift gallows for women of the family, carrying off Grammy Bibb, several faceless cousins, a favorite aunt with dimples deep enough for planting and her eldest sister, Aurore, the blonde darling of Stono County, who stoically kneaded at her bedclothes for three frightful days before producing a male nonesuch that Father hastily wrapped in red flannel and buried in an unmarked hole behind the smokehouse on the morning she died, crying out at the end in a mystic guttural tongue none understood or recognized. Passage to that Good Land seemed to be neither fair nor fleet. The moment Roxana realized she was growing a baby she understood immediately what she must do: prepare herself like a warrior on the eve of battle. She had read
in the original Greek at the age of sixteen; she knew what was required.
The annunciatory instant, as clear to her now as present vision, occurred as she stood defiantly in the pulpit of the Pleasance Street Methodist Church in Utica, struggling to lift her modest voice above the clanging, the braying, the whistling, the clapping of the protesting horde outside. She had just finished reciting the Declaration of Independence—amazing the ardor those few simple words could still arouse almost seventy years later—when a boyish, moon-faced man in a rusty black coat climbed atop a pew and, shouting above the clamor of fists drumming angrily upon the walls, inquired of Roxana whether he could approach and feel her chin for evidence of a beard. A dozen men rose in outraged objection, and as Roxana waited patiently for the commotion to subside—a small, still figure at the eye of her nation’s storm—she felt an unmistakable flutter of ghostly delicacy, a kind of spiritual hiccough, pass hastily through her frame, and at once she knew: a skull had begun to swell between her hips.
“Nonsense,” declared her sister-in-law, Aroline. “No one’s departing this household just yet, as long as I have any say in the matter.”
“But I want this child,” Roxana said in her soft drawl that always struck Aroline’s northern ears as the sound a cloud might make if it could talk.
“And so you shall, my dear, and many more besides.”
The thought depleted Roxana. Did she truly want even this one? She fell into a prolonged and uncharacteristic period of distraction. Days came and went, but she was no longer a passenger. The most trivial tasks eluded her. The careless placement of a spoon or cup on the kitchen table, a particular patch of sunstruck wallpaper, acquired a mesmeric fascination. She could lose herself for hours (and go she knew not where) in the view from her bedroom window, the barren hills lying motionless in the bleak February light like a corpse sprawled on its side. A single spider dangling on a single thread from a peeling porch beam was the saddest sight in the world. She kept misplacing her heavy ring of house keys. The pauses in her evening conversations with Aroline grew so lengthy she’d forget she was even speaking to anyone. At night, during those rare intervals when sleep actually came, she’d persist in dreaming that she was awake and rise in the morning achy and exhausted, a dark and haunted look hovering prominently about her solemn brown eyes.
Aroline did what Aroline did best: she worried. She left copies of
The Journal of Health and Longevity
The Cold Water Journal
or any of the sundry ultraist periodicals she subscribed to lying strategically around the house, pages opened to pertinent passages. Ever fashion’s weather vane, she had already sampled a full course of the latest faiths, philosophies and fads, including vegetarianism, hydrotherapy, phrenology, perfectionism and harmonialism. She had been among the expectant number huddled atop the cemetery knoll, her presence testifying at least to the possibility, if not the hope, that the prophet’s words were more than mere animal sounds but actual reverberations of gospel thunder, just as she was convinced there were embers of revealed truth in every belief fervently held. Fervency was the key, the sign incontrovertible of spirit leaking in through the cracks of this darkling world.
Roxana ignored the magazines, left the room at any mention of Grahamizing her diet and, despite Aroline’s pleas, refused to consult a doctor, seeing no reason for outside advice on a matter women had been handling quite well on their own since Eve birthed Cain. Her attention was wholly bent on registering the most minute operations of her Internal Monitor, a phantom elusiveness that communicated at confoundingly irregular intervals through either a sort of coded rapping upon the walls of her soul or, more directly, in an actual voice, never her own, a child’s urgent whisper, so thin at times as to be practically inaudible. Such messages that she did receive—however obscure, paradoxical or contradictory—had always proven to be reliable governors through life’s terrible riddle. So it was clearly disquieting to suffer her faithful Monitor behaving like an inept, even outright fraudulent, fortune-teller. Giddily, it swung first one way, then the other, as if her heart were the dead pendulum weight of a great faceless clock. The chords of her desires seemed far, far out of reach, and she felt hopeless, lost, utterly alone. The sun was an egg, the moon a bone, and she couldn’t rid her mind of the singsong facts of that obvious perception. Such straw her head was stuffed with. But then, inexplicably, the color of her mood would flare into an afternoon’s, sometimes a whole day’s, conviction of supreme imperishability. Every significant event of her life, of everybody’s life, was bathed in the hard liberating light of inevitability, and backward through the dark confusions of her past was opened a route to those charmed moments when absolute rightness descended like grace, the radiance she had migrated beneath after turning her back on hearth and home and, like the distraught heroine of an Old World romance, fleeing the gates of Redemption Hall forever, or the exaltation of her first galvanic glimpse of the young Thatcher amid the marble and potted palms of the Congress Hotel in Saratoga Springs, the nimbus crowning his head savage as hellfire. But then, as abruptly as a wind-extinguished candle, the sovereign light would go out and the night rush in, attended by a whole motley zoo of familiars—chattering doubt, thumping care, heckling vexation—and thought was an anarchy of remains in a moldering tomb.
When Thatcher returned, several months overdue, from his latest provocative circuit of western churches, he found his wife out back, coatless in the bitter air, unmittened fingers clutching the wooden rim of the well, her boyish body angled out precariously over the hole as if she were searching for something precious she had dropped. Her face was blotched and wet and he was surprised—he had never seen her cry before. When he took her in his arms, she began to tremble.
“My life is over,” she sobbed. Around them the frozen trees swayed and creaked like giant chandeliers caught in a draft. Tinkling crystals of ice plopped without cease onto the thick carpet of snow.
“No, no,” said Thatcher, his own voice a stranger’s to his ear. “No.” He had no idea what she was talking about and didn’t know what to do but keep patting her mechanically on her quavering back, his uncertain hand running up and down the hard china knobs of her spine.
When Roxana finally dared to look up at her husband, her expression emptied of all defenses, she gasped, reaching out to touch the monstrous swelling around his half-closed eye where the skin bulged with organic color normally kept from view.
“It’s nothing,” Thatcher said, brushing her hand away. “The mark of Christian love. Tell me what’s happened here.”
So she did, and the very words themselves, spoken out loud at last to the one person they’d always been silently directed toward, settled like ballast deep inside her. “And I keep thinking,” she concluded, in a surprisingly firm voice, “of all those babies who need me.” She could see them, too, infinite acres of squalling infants, manacled each to each, horrible in number, every fresh tiny mind merely another receptacle of sufficient dimension to contain entire the whole of the world’s pain, the chorus of their shrieks and wails rising like incense unto the stone nostrils of the father whose true features were perpetually obscured by the human mask of God.
Thatcher smiled. “This is wonderful news. But our child will need you as well.”
“Yes,” she agreed, and the look she gave him quivered for a moment and then broke, and there were tears on her face again. She was terrified of failing, of loosening her grip for even an instant on the file she had wielded for so many years, her heart’s herald, the friction of her eloquence, rasping away in the gloom at the chain that bound up the land.
Thatcher hugged his wife tightly to his chest. “I doubt,” he said, “that the country will begrudge you the time spent caring for your own.”
“Is this pride?” she asked suddenly, pushing herself away, anxiously searching the mystery of his eyes. “Is this pride I am suffering from?”
A wind came up in a wild rushing from the valley floor, driving before it a hard, dry flurry, flakes as coarse as sand, stinging their cheeks, hissing across the sugary crust of fallen snow where the forked tracks of nameless birds and rodents traced a mad, illegible script.
“You are the least proud creature that I know,” said Thatcher, taking her icy hand. “Come now, let’s get back inside. You have to start taking better care of yourself. There’s a needy visitor coming to our life.”
They moved off, arm in arm, toward the tall stone house where from behind the curtains of an upstairs window watched the shadowy figure of Aroline, and the monotone sky moved over their bowed heads in a single seamless sheet of dunnest gray.
So, warily, with Thatcher at her side, Roxana settled into the facts of her condition. And as if to prove to herself that nothing had changed, nothing ever need change, she rediscovered the iron in her soul and, shamelessly exploiting her burgeoning belly as both shield and goad, ventured back out onto the lecture circuit, a leather fire bucket at her feet, delivering through the iridescent scrim of passing nausea a milky denunciation of the American Constitution. But the yeasty tide sweeping through her was undeniable, and as the shape of her body quickened and swelled so, too, did the shape of the world until both, strangely congruous, loomed large, unwieldy, insolently expectant. In other humors, however, she was attended by the notion that her being had been overmastered by a species of machine, the ruthless cogs and wheels of Nature inflexible, to which she must submit or risk prolonged breakage on the teeth of the mechanism.
One long unpleasant night Roxana passed under the shade of a terrible dream: the dreaded birth, pronounced a whacking success by the crush of obscure relatives and anonymous friends milling mindlessly about the bloodied bed, had come and quit with less fuss than a spring shower. The peril was past that she had, unaccountably, survived, and nestled in her arms lay the issue of all her anxiety: an infant well-formed and healthy and male and quite black—the latter trait gone strangely unremarked by all save Roxana, who had lately been seized by a nameless foreboding. She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t unbend, her skin all full of furry spiders. In a panic, she stole her child and fled out into the countryside, past pasture and pond, down dark roads into darker woods. She ran and ran until her legs failed, and on the bank of a clear-rushing stream she placed the baby in a conveniently abandoned canoe and pushed it free of the mud on a journey to a far better shore.
She awoke with sweat on her brow and a trembling in her limbs, staring at the gray rectangle of her bedroom window until grayness dissolved in the slow, liquid light of dawn. She slept fitfully for weeks afterward, afraid of the places her dreams might carry her.
Then, one perfectly ordinary day, without fanfare or gonfalon, the great thing simply commenced. She was alone in the house at the time—Thatcher off on another hazardous mission across the Ohio, Aroline gone to town shopping—and she had been feeling slightly “vague” (there was no more precise word for it) since arising, a sensation she habitually associated with just being alive, when abstraction resolved itself into a pang, then another, and another, and she knew the contest had begun. She went out onto the porch and sat in the rocker watching the solid, solid hills and the bright autumnal sky. She was still sitting there waiting for whatever was to happen when Aroline, nose mask tied firmly across her face (a practical precaution she indulged whenever a nip entered the air), returned in the trap with a basketful of morally sanctioned supplies from the Requited Labor Grocery and Dry Goods Store and breathless news of the Grand Rally for Polk that had transformed their drowsy town square into a reveler’s midway, the normal day’s routine being apparently suspended for the duration. A Brass Band! Military Procession! Oratory and Cannonades! Oysters and Ices! Roman Candles at Eight! Then Aroline noticed what was written on Roxana’s face and, recognizing the text at a glance, immediately hustled her protesting sister-in-law up to bed where she ordered her to remain while Aroline went off in search of a reliable physician.