The house where Marcie Ray grew up looked like she felt, a tired and rickety collection of aching bones and sore joints, which wasn’t fair, because the house was on its second century and she wasn’t far past thirty. It had once been sturdy, a solid structure of river rock and hand-hewn timber. Now, as she sat next to her dying mother, it felt as if the place had buckled not just from the forces of settling and age, but from the hardships and sometimes the misadventure of the people who had called it home all those years.
Marcie sat in a creaky, straight-backed spindle chair of maple, bending her five-foot, nine-inch frame over to wipe milky white rivulets of Ensure from the corners of her mother’s mouth in between sips from the little waxy box of fake nutrition. After dabbing her mother’s chin, she refolded the soft cotton diaper cloth, the kind draped over a shoulder for a burping baby, dipping it into a bowl of cool water.
It could be a child’s room. Plastic covers over the mattress for the bedwetting had given way to a diaper. Soft baby cloth. Little drink box with a thin sippy straw pointed at one end to break the seal, like the juice boxes that parents bought by the case for kids. Riffles from the river providing muted white noise as the dying light sneaked through mullioned windows.
The farmhouse revealed its aging to the ear, too, the old pine and locust timbers still settling, popping, and groaning at will out of the silence, reminders of the unsteadiness of physical things. Marcie hid her cracks, the fissures of worry made unseen and unheard by standing straight and tall and helping others. But there they were, sloughing off layers of her foundation, of the drive and patience and resilience to which she’d always held fast. It was a steady exfoliation of youth and solidity, hers alone to know.
Her registered nurse mind told her that this aging-too-fast feeling can trail a life of too much work and too little sleep. But her thirty-two-year-old bones knew more. They knew the weight of fret and fear, of learning and keeping secrets and needing to do something to change the chaos those secrets were spinning.
The knowing did not help.
Marcie’s fingers dried quickly after every dip in the bowl, pink skin gone brittle and slick from using so much hand gel at work. She had tied her shoulder-length, light auburn hair, still damp from a shower, in a ponytail for her shift at the hospital, soft waves furling up as they dried. Long ago when Julia was a little girl, Marcie had told her sister that the red hair and hazel eyes they shared were gifts, from big sister to little.
Other than her alcoholic hands, Marcie’s fair skin was smooth and supple. She never tolerated much sun, her freckles always breaking out like measles when she spent time outside, which meant she pretty much always had them, because a girl growing up on a farm didn’t hole up inside with dolls and cartoons and dreams of being somewhere else. JJ…it would always be Julia Jeanine to Mama…had the freckles, too, though not so wild and vivid. The kind that the grownup ladies called cute or darling. “Isn’t Julia just the most darling little thing with those freckles,” they would say. “Why, look at that cute face.”
She and Julia were nature girls without knowing there was such a thing, a foreign saying they’d never heard, said by people from places they’d never been. They scrambled over boulders, rock-hopped creeks and explored shady forests together, Marcie leading the way and, JJ, six years younger, needing no cajoling because she trusted Marcie without thought of it. She lived for that nod or smile from Marcie and it would always be that way, the bonds of hearts and souls and red hair and freckles.
Her mother lay here wasting away not from misadventure, but from runaway hordes of cells. Found eight months ago on an X-ray, Eula Ray’s cancer had started in the lung, an image of death on its way. By then, the tumor had spun off clones that tracked up and down the tiny roads of her bloodstream, now feeding and growing in her liver, lymph nodes, brain.
Marcie knew well this corporeal fading made stark by her mother’s sagging skin and jutting bones. She’d spent ten years trying to give comfort and shreds of hope to lives stripped of organs and tissue and peace by cancer surgery. Here in the old house and in their own ways, she and Mama were long past the crash of diagnosis and the slow-motion disappointment of failed treatment.
Maybe a month ago, Mama had said, “Let’s make some peace with this and let the Lord take care of it, honey. After all, your daddy’s probably been miserable without my cooking for so long. And there’s no liquor up there so he ought to be tolerable.”
“I imagine you’re right about that,” Marcie said, laughing and crying. “Just make sure he doesn’t go back to flirting with Frankie Howell. She’s probably somewhere up there making trouble.”
And maybe they each had found something, if not peace. Something that at least might be called a truce with the fear and the fighting.
Until Marcie and her brothers and sister were delivered in the new hospital one county over, generations of Rays had been born in this house, on the rich river bottom land that gave all it had for tobacco and corn and dairy cattle and now had nothing left to give, with no one left to take, anyway. They had died here, too. A few had died on the land. Accidents, mostly, but there had been a couple of killings, not an unheard-of thing in a part of the world that knew its share of hardship and craziness. So, there were suicides, too. Not to be talked about in church or over supper, but there weren’t any secrets in the country.
There were scarred and dark valleys around the county now left to people hollowed out by meth or pills or lack of much to hope for. Pockmarks of festering despair that dotted the contours on the map. Much of the farming now was done by the organic settlers from faraway cities who bought the pretty land. The old hardscrabble family homeplaces with their washed-out roads and overgrown brambles remained home to those with neither chance nor ambition to leave.
Marcie was the middle child of Eula and Frank Ray’s five, but now she was the oldest of the living. The older boys, Jimmy and Keith, had both died here. Jimmy, down the hall in a bed with a racing cancer just like their mother’s, and Keith, on the riverbank just down from the tobacco barn, shot in the chest. The man claimed Keith had stolen his wife, or her heart, at least. So, the man blew Keith’s heart into mist with a big pistol and a twisting of a Bible verse. Not an eye for an eye, but a heart for a heart.
It was murder, but the sheriff couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be convinced of it. Self-defense, the man had said, since Keith was armed too. There were no witnesses to the man’s firing Keith’s gun and arranging the body, so the man was walking free to this day. The sheriff, still running things twelve years later, had made sure the Rays would not be believed, which really wasn’t that hard anyway.
With Keith gone, Marcie became the oldest two days before graduating nursing school. She and Julia and Shannon, the youngest boy, came back with their parents from the graduation ceremony to a funeral parlor and Keith’s open casket and a chapel darkened by grief and shame and no hope for justice. Her father died a year later, worn down by hard work that gave him too little and grief and the bottle that took too much. And ever since, the burden of caring for others, for her patients, for her widowed and broken mother and for her little sister and brother, had worn a raw burr that made living an upright and conscientious life a hard thing.
“I’m glad you’ve got an appetite today, Mama,” she said. “You know you need to eat more. It’ll give you strength,” she added, knowing as she spoke the words, the hollowness, the Goddamn silliness, really, of saying such things to a dying old woman. Unlike the big-hearted ladies from church who needed to say such things to break the silence of despair, Marcie knew better. Saying it was just a default, like, “let’s get some fresh air, it would be good for you” or “you want to do a Bible reading?” An appetite wasn’t what mattered now. What mattered was getting on with the peace of dying because there was no comfort in living.
Marcie checked her watch. Almost six but getting on near dark here in the river bottom where the sun went missing after three. “Maybe JJ can make it by before she goes to work. I think she’s working a party on the mountain tonight.”
Her mother’s voice came raspy, soft, like the words were scraping over river sand on their way out. “Oh, honey, I hope so. Where’s my baby girl been? I can’t remember the last time I saw her.”
It had only been a few days, but in her mother’s world of failing organs and memories and no connections of awareness from one day to the next, Julia had been long lost. And in her haze of morphine and Ativan, Mama wouldn’t have noticed the barely visible bump in Julia’s belly which was just three months in the making.
The misadventure was Julia’s, and Marcie alone knew but some of the truth of it. Julia had choked out bits and pieces of the story, but she was squeezing secrets and fears so hard that Marcie could almost see them ripping the seams of the brittle shell her sister was wearing. Like the fog that settled in the valleys and wrapped itself around everything that stood, Marcie’s worry crawled through the air between them and stuck fast and wet to the bonds they had always shared.
Never mind that her sister claimed a love for the man who was from another world, a world of money and taking people. He was a plastic surgeon in Palm Beach, Florida, for God’s sake. Of course, she loved the child to be. But this crazy play of Julia’s needed a new script, one that wrote him and the heartbreak and danger out of the ending. Fourteen years ago she herself had lived the bare bones of this movie, of a life unspooling, brakes squealing and frying down a steep mountain road. In the dark places of her own past, the script hadn’t been rewritten before the final scenes played out in a women’s clinic in another state and complications from a procedure and the barrenness that became the forever reminder of a fate that wasn’t avoided.
Hoping for an all’s-well ending to Julia’s film was a child’s folly. Dr. Arlen Winston wasn’t a foolish country boy with nothing to lose and less to care about. Marcie needed to treat this disease of reckless choices, of infatuation with the man, that was growing in Julia as sure as that tiny human form was growing in her, as sure as any tumor. And she would.
Marcie had to be back at the hospital in an hour, seven p.m., for another twelve-hour shift of the three or four she did each week in the surgical unit at Sisters of Mercy in Asheville. She had broken from the Ray traditions of the soulless drudgery of men working the land and being discouraged by it and women marrying and dropping babies and sometimes being discouraged by that too. A break that made her proud. She had made her own way and held steadfast to a refusal to settling for just anyone to partner with, men being mostly just not worth the trouble.
“Where’s Julia been, honey?” Mama rasped, her lips starting to quiver, her words of five minutes ago forgotten. “I miss my baby girl. Seems she’s in another world sometimes, don’t it?”
The dying really could have sparks of insight and perceptions of things that rang true. Long lost. Marcie didn’t think of Julia’s late scarceness quite that way. But the space between the two of them used to be a lot smaller and now it was growing, every day.
“Here, let’s get your feet back under the pillow, Mama,” Marcie said. “You want to finish your milkshake?” Marcie checked her watch again. The hospice nurse should be here by now.
The doctor with the big mountaintop house at the Panther Club was good-looking, no doubt, with a full head of sandy-gray hair, bright teeth, a tan, and a slim but solid frame. Women with real tans, money, and vanity, Marcie knew, would naturally flock to him and his surgical magic. Julia, an inch shy of Marcie’s five-foot-nine, stood half a ruler short of him. Marcie knew this because she had seen them together. Neither knew of her spying when they went hiking that early spring afternoon and thought they were alone.
It wasn’t a signed trail. Really, it wasn’t much more than an old game trail that had opened up some from foot traffic, cutting through a dense cove of hemlock and spruce up Caldwell Creek, to a small clearing set close to the water with a fire ring and some felled tree logs arranged for sitting. Of course, the locals knew the place well, but at that time of year it was too late for hunting and too early for fishing and most people wouldn’t go up here just for a walk. There were easier places to get to.
It was a chilly but clear Tuesday, the falling sun shooting weak light through the dense stand of trees. Hardwoods don’t give cover until their leaves come out, but in the low-hanging evergreens, Julia and the man would have felt they had the place to themselves. They wouldn’t have done this on a weekend, she was sure. Marcie knew the cove especially well, from a summer night long ago and a campfire in the same place, cheap beer and a seventeen-year-old boy named Seth, with him grabbing and pulling and her slapping him and him apologizing. Something a thousand mountain girls had been through, though the apology part was unusual.
She pulled off into an old gravel road cut a quarter mile behind them and picked her way through the woods, traversing a short ridge, which gave her a sightline down to the path that Julia and the man would take to the clearing. She moved quietly. No need to rush since she was cutting an angled shortcut above their approach. They would not see her. She settled in behind a cabin-size boulder to wait and watch.
Thin streaks of tears snaked down among her mother’s wrinkles on a face gone from fleshy and full to something like oily parchment paper. The tears mixed with the formula as Marcie stared out the window, lost in her wondering and worrying. The room was warm from the day, but she felt a shiver as she tried to see through the dusk that fast turned to dark down here in the bottoms, to see a way through to help Julia and protect her from the pain and anguish over the man and the baby and the life that had turned black on her.
She turned back to the bed and her mother’s scarecrow face. “Oh, I’m sorry Mama,” she said, as she wiped the drool and the tears away.
Sniffling quietly, her mother said, “I just wish Julia would come see me, honey. Tell her I love her, okay?”
“She loves you, too, Mama. You know that. She’s just been busy for a few days. Listen, I hear Ms. Juanita from the hospice coming up the driveway. I’ve got to go to work now. And I’ll try to call Julia when I get a signal, tell her to come over as soon as she can.”
Julia had told her yesterday that the man was going to be on the mountain this weekend. As Marcie drove up the hill toward the road, her phone came to life with a message that she had a voicemail. It was from Julia. She’d have to wait till she got farther down the road before it would play. A spasm shot through her gut, a message trailing the sharpness of it. It said they wouldn’t be talking tonight.