THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM A SHORT STORY I’M WORKING ON TENTATIVELY CALLED “THE KING OF BOONE COUNTY.”
A LOT OF THIS WRITING IS NOT GOOD AND HACKNEYED AND OVERWORKED, BUT IT IS PROGRESS, TO SOME DEGREE, NONETHELESS.
THE MAIN GOAL HERE IS TO GET INSIDE OF MAY ELLEN’S HEAD, AND TO DRAW THE COMPARISON BETWEEN HER AND THE RIVER. IN THIS, I’VE MOST LIKELY FAILED. BUT THAT’S WHAT FIRST DRAFTS ARE FOR. (MOST OF THIS WILL NOT MAKE IT INTO THE FINISHED STORY, I PRESUME.)
The boy was near her age. He was about as tall as a mailbox and his limbs hung loosely off his body as if they’d been tied to a machine and slowly stretched out. His skin was blotched with filth. When he spoke, the ball at his throat moved the entire length of his neck.
What’d you say your name was?
Where you from, May Ellen?
She said she didn’t know. They crossed the river on a fallen log and walked into the wooded land beyond. Redwoods towered over them. They weaved in between the trees, the boy leading the way and May Ellen following as if attached to his hip by a rope.
That river there is the mighty Klamath, the boy said. From this point it goes for thousands of miles in each direction. I’ve seen nearly every inch of it.
Then he started asking her questions. As they walked she told him all the things she didn’t know. She told him that the details of her own life had been obscured from her because of her faulty memory, the curse that’d been put on her not to remember, not to retain, not to have the luxury of recalling lullabies from childhood or other moments of affection that she was sure people turned to to quell their inner hurt. She was sure people turned to these memories because she’d heard her mother talk this way.
Ma would close her eyes, May Ellen said. And I would ask her what she was closing her eyes for all day long and she’d say that she was thinking of her own mother and of a certain memory of her mother holding her near their home’s only window and talking into her ear over the sound of rain pouring outside, saying, You’re the greatest gift that God did give me. Ma told me to remember there’s no love like a mother’s love. But she never did say those words to me herself.
It never occurred to May Ellen that the gaps in her memory existed from without, that it was not her memory that was defected but the circumstances of her upbringing that prevented any good from happening to her in the first place.
All of this, of course, was unavailable to her. She spoke in that childish way of detachment and preoccupation, at times showing glimpses of wonder. But she showed a particular kind of wonder, one practiced and honed. So even the things she spoke of that were terrible sounded like either invented stories or obstacles that crumbled at contact with her resilience. She was not someone to worry about. She appeared clean and well taken care of. Her skin glowed. And she knew how to smile.
If any indication of her past did rise up it did so in flashes, glimpses, quick sputtering bursts in her eyes, which lit up at once with astonishment, and then deadened immediately, possessed, and then turned back to beautiful so quickly that you’d question if that one moment of deadened terror was your imagination, or was it something inside her breaking to the surface, begging to be released, and then pulled down again?
She stopped at the edge of the river and peered down into it, the moving water, roaring, lashing, untamed, and she wondered where it all went and where it had started and where all the water in the world had come from.
More likely than not none of it had been invented. Every drop of water on the earth had been there since the beginning, and here it was now, before her, moving unified in a single direction, pure, clean as air, old as time.
She reached down and put her hand into it. She spread her fingers and let the current flow through and felt the cool water wrap around her knuckles. With her eyes closed, she searched for a memory. A thousand false pictures flashed across her mind, and she dismissed each one in turn, knowing all of them to be the creation of her monstrous need to feel that she belonged someplace, that she too came from somewhere and was moving in a direction, any direction at all. But she felt nothing of that sense of purpose.
She felt herself only as her constituent parts, eyes, hair, skull, hands, feet, legs, skin and flesh, but how these pieces fit together she did not know. How did other people go through life so well put together? May Ellen felt like a large bag carrying within it all the different parts to make a human being, but with no instruction on how to assemble them. And on their own these parts didn’t mean anything. The heart outside of the chest is a grotesque thing. So too would the constant dull pain eating away at her stomach seem absurd if she were to reach inside herself and pull her stomach out and hold it in her hand so she could see that it is nothing more than a purse-sized piece of flesh with bits of masticated food inside.
The question in her head was no longer about loneliness or hurt or what it means to be put-together and human. She thought now about suffering. She asked, over and over, Why should I have to suffer? She asked, Why should anyone or anything have to suffer? She wondered what about suffering was good and righteous, and she stared into the river without blinking, as if the weight of her resolutions had made her dumb, breathless, mute as the sky.
Something pulled on May Ellen’s hand. In that frozen instant something nabbed her hand, yanked her down into the river, her body fixed for half a heartbeat with her palm against the water and her feet straight up in the air, and then her body swung down and crashed into the current and was swiftly swept away.
The boy called her name. He’d been calling her name for a few minutes with no answer. At some point, May Ellen had turned and gone back to the river without his knowing. Or maybe she’d not followed him at all. He called her name and then he saw her appear through the thin mist the rain had left behind. She was at the river, only her shape visible, dark, solid as if carved from black stone. He saw her bend over on her hands and knees to dangle her arm over the river, but he knew about that river. He’d seen its mighty pull. And before he could call her name again she got sucked up and disappeared, as if into the mist, as if she were made of dust and had broken in a strong wind.
He followed the river for nearly three miles downstream before he saw the sky was getting dark and he would have to head back home. As he walked back the way he’d come, he turned at the highest point, before he would walk down and lose sight of that part of the river altogether, and he peered out over the river and saw it bend into the distance with no sign of life but the water itself.