Monday, November 1, 2010

Serpent of the Nile

Serpent of the Nile
Ross Howell, Jr.

His secret, Ruby Vaughan’s father always told her, was time. Sweet corn should be picked as close to when it was going to be eaten as possible. Customers couldn’t tell you the difference, but they could taste it. Rather than picking the evening before, he would roust her at three o’clock on a Saturday morning to load the pickup and make the trip to Market Square in Roanoke.

Ruby would put on a dress, since the work was not hard, wearing her mud shoes and carrying her slippers to the truck, with a smock to protect her dress. She liked it best when there was just a sliver of moon, stars bright and hanging low over the mountains, because in the darkness she could use her touch to recognize the ripe ears, feeling the firm kernels under the husk, and the odor of the corn as she pulled the ear away from the stalk was delicious. It was like swimming in a stream at dusk, smooth stones under her feet in the darkness, and the thrilling splash of some creature dropping into the water at stream’s edge.

The birds were silent this time of morning, and she would listen to the rustle of cornstalks as her father moved along the rows, the husks shrieking as he pulled them away from the stalks. Then from some hollow, she would hear the first rooster, and then the rise of birdsong at the edge of the field. Her smock would be damp with dew by now. Sunrise would gild the tassels of corn, and the woods beyond the field swam in violet light. Sometimes she would think of the photograph of her mother on her bedroom bureau. Her mother’s eyes were large and beautiful, and her dark hair was bound in a net that looked like silver. She thought of the elegant shape of the lips in the photograph, what they might say to her.

Sometimes she would ask her father what her mother was like.

“Well,” he would say, “I think the Lord sometimes gives us an angel here on earth, so we can know what goodness is. Then He has to take her back. That was your mother.”

Gone at her birth. Reclaimed by the angel choir. She herself had grown tall on long legs, her breasts often tender from growth. When she had her first period she ran screaming to her father that she was dying, she was bleeding to death, and he had gotten an old woman who lived on a farm nearby to explain it to her.

What little she knew made her even more curious. She studied the animals in the fields, the rude, solemn way they pursued one another. And she loved being with the boys in the barn. If the hay was a little damp when it was baled, it would heat, so that the air was warm and heavy and moist, ripe with the smell of clover and timothy grass. The boys, like all young animals, had a bright, clean smell. She loved to touch them, their hearts fluttering beneath their ribs, under her hands. They were excitable, and sudden. They seemed to live their lives right under the skin, the way the animals did.

When she was in the grip of one of her headaches, big as she was, her father would let her sit in his lap. The pain was ferocious, throbbing, and light hurt her eyes. She would crawl into his lap, legs dangling to the floor until she folded them against his stomach, and he would gently touch her forehead, her eyebrows, her temples, his thick hands rough as tree bark. Sometimes she would clutch his wrist with both hands, pressing his big hand against her cheek, so that it felt as though her cheek were cradled in the knot hole of a big tree, and she could feel the throb of his pulse under her fingertips. She would drift off to sleep, still holding him.

On Market Saturday if they started early enough, the lights of Roanoke would be glimmering as they drove in the pickup over the brow of Bent Mountain. It was a wondrous sight, jewels scattered in the valley, and she felt as though she were overlooking a faraway kingdom. Here, the old radio in the truck could pick up the stations clearly. Her father tuned to the station that had the livestock and grain prices, with old-time fiddle and Bluegrass music. The newsman was talking about a battle in a place called the Ia Trang Valley.

Then the music came on and her father sang tenor along with the tune.

She walked through the corn leading down to the river,
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun.
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her,
And left me to die like a fox on the run.

She dozed off to the sound of the radio and her father’s singing. When she woke, the truck was parked in a stall. She heard the murmur of voices and looked out the back window. Her father was wrapping a large parcel for a couple standing next to the tailgate.

“That’s right, ma’am, boil it for three minutes and not a minute more,” her father said.

Ruby stretched, opened the door of the truck, and walked over to stand alongside her father. She saw that two women who had just come out the door of the coffee house across Market Square were looking at her. Her father saw them, too. He took the bills out of the cigar box on the folding table by the tailgate of the pickup and stuck them in the bib pocket of his overalls. Then he buttoned the pocket.

“Lord to God, Darnelle, look at that angel,” the woman with brunette hair said. Her hair was cut in bangs that hid her eyebrows and draped over her shoulders nearly to her waist. Her eye makeup was thick and a little smudged. She was wearing a white blouse with polka dots the color of oranges that tied in the front so that her midriff showed and a tight skirt that matched the polka dots came midway down her thighs. The skirt had a white vinyl belt that was two inches wide with a round buckle and her white vinyl platform boots were tied with big laces right under her knee caps. Ruby thought it would be easy to mistake her for Cher Bono. She staggered when she started down the steps and the woman with blond hair helped steady her but her ankle turned on the second step and one of the platform heels went flying.

“Ain’t that a sack of shucks,” she said, and started to giggle. “Goddamn cheap shoes.”

“Phyllis, a child in diapers is less trouble to look after.” The blond woman picked up the broken heel and handed it to the woman with dark hair.

“Like you would know, Darnelle. Like you have ever been anywhere near a baby’s ass.”

“I reckon I raised my brothers and sisters. I reckon I did.” The woman named Darnelle had blond hair that was nearly white. It was teased off her head and made a sweep away from her left cheek, like Dolly Parton on the Porter Waggoner Show. Her lips were red as crab apples and her breasts were enormous, spilling over the front of a bodice that was tied with black string at the waist. She wore a jean skirt, shorter even than the one the woman named Phyllis was wearing, and the skin of her thighs was white and smooth as powder.

The two women made their way across Market Square, the thin, dark-haired woman hobbling on the broken heel, the heavier, blond-haired woman jiggling in her tight clothing. Ruby could smell their perfume before they were half way across the square.

“Look at that figure,” the dark-haired woman said.

“A rose just budding,” the blond-haired woman said.

“Don’t get your bib in a wrinkle, Homer,” the dark-haired woman said. “We won’t steal anything. What’s this precious angel’s name?”

“Ruby,” she said.

“Cleopatra’s favorite jewel,” the woman said.

“Cleopatra like Elizabeth Taylor?” Ruby said.

“Yes, angel, like Elizabeth Taylor. Queen of Egypt,” she said. “Serpent of the Nile. Ruler of dominions and realms. The most powerful woman in the world.”

“My name’s not Homer,” her father said. The dark-haired woman looked at him like a fly she’d like to swat.

“What is your name, then?” the woman said.

“It’s Gabriel,” he said.

The woman sucked air through her teeth.

“Lord to God, Darnelle, will wonders never cease,” she said. “We got an angel and archangel right here on the Market selling sweet corn out the bed of a pickup.”

“Now, Phyllis,” Darnelle said.

“Reckon I could blow on that horn of yours, Gabriel? I’ll play you a tune you won’t forget.”

“Phyllis,” Darnelle said.

“I’m not listening to that talk,” her father said. He looked up the street, where a policeman was talking to a man selling woven baskets. Phyllis followed his eyes.

“Going to call Frank, are you? Oh, he’ll make us move on, for sure. But I expect he’ll be right interested in the busted tail light and baldy tire on this rattle trap of yours. I’d just bet he’ll think the best thing to do is impound it until you get her fixed, especially if I tell him his freebie’s cut off if he don’t. Hell, let’s get him over here right now.” Her father’s face flushed red.

“My Daddy didn’t mean anything,” Ruby said. “He wouldn’t say anything to hurt anybody.”

“Listen to this angel, Darnelle. Even her voice is beautiful.”

“Phyllis, what on earth is wrong with you today?” Darnelle said.

“What’s wrong with me? On top of a goddamn hangover I got hot flashes like old Satan farting on the Fourth of July.”

“I told you you never should have had that operation.”

“Well, I reckon not, Darnelle, not unless I wanted to goddamn nearly bleed to death every twenty-eight days.”

“At least I’m still a woman,” Darnelle said.

“Fertile as a rabbit,” Phyllis said.

“I have feelings. I’m not hard like you.”

“That may be. But you’ve got as much mileage on that box as a Goodyear retread factory.”

A woman walking toward the truck gasped and put her kerchief to her mouth. She scurried toward another stand.

“What’s wrong with you, you old cow?” Phyllis said. “Catch your tit in a briar?”

“Don’t you be driving off my customers,” Gabriel said.

“I’ve known love,” Darnelle said. “Abiding love.”

“Lord to God, Darnelle, don’t start on that again,” Phyllis said.

“He was the purest, most beautiful man I’ve ever known,” Darnelle said. “In that uniform he looked like a god.” She fingered a thin gold necklace that trailed down between her breasts. She lifted the chain that held a single large pearl. She showed it to Ruby.

“He sent me this as a token,” she said. “A native boy dove so deep in the Pacific to capture this pearl that his lungs exploded.”

“I cannot listen to this horse shit again, Darnelle,” Phyllis said.

“He sent it to me, ransomed with blood, set in gold, a token of his undying love, with a beautiful letter,” Darnelle said. “I have it framed in my apartment.” Tears brimmed up in her mascara. “Those little yellow bastards shot him all to pieces,” she said. She closed her palm slowly over the pearl.

Phyllis tapped the toe of the boot that had lost the heel.

“He was some college trick you picked up at the bus station and we stayed drunk two days before he shipped off. He was a stud, though, I’ll grant you that.”

“Sex had nothing to do with it,” Darnelle said.

“Well excuse the hell out of me, Darnelle, but when he wasn’t swigging from a bottle he was loading lumber with you, the way I remember.”

“Now you two hold on,” Gabriel said.

“He was the love of a lifetime,” Darnelle said. “Something you could never understand.”

“That boy didn’t love you, Darnelle,” Phyllis said.

“He loved me with abandon,” Darnelle said.
“No one loves us,” Phyllis said.

“I love. I am a woman. Not a witch like you,” Darnelle said. Her face was twisted like a rag.

Phyllis looked down at the pavement and turned her boots on the outsides of her feet.

“She’s not a witch,” Ruby said. “She’s pretty. She could be a star on television.”
Phyllis raised her eyes.

“I told you she was an angel, Darnelle.”

“I’m not,” Ruby said.

Darnelle snatched up Phyllis like a doll and hugged her.

“I didn’t mean it, Phyllis,” Darnelle said.

“You fat whore pig,” Phyllis said, “stop blubbering on me.”

“I didn’t mean it, Phyllis,” Darnelle said.

“I know that,” Phyllis said. “You’re too goddamn simple to mean anything.”

“You’re my one true friend. Please forgive me.”

“Darnelle, if you don’t let me go I am going to die of the hot flash.”

Darnelle held Phyllis tightly for a moment longer, then released her. She pulled a tissue from her purse and began to dab at the mascara on her face.

“Everything all right here, ladies?” the policeman said. “Buying some sweet corn?” The commotion had drawn him down the sidewalk.

“We are, Frank,” Phyllis said. “We were just speaking with this gentleman and his beautiful child. I’ll take six ears, Gabriel.”

“Looks like you busted up your boot, Phyllis. Been drinking?”

“Lord to God, I don’t know how you can say that to me, Frank Douthat,” she said.

Gabriel selected six ears and started to wrap them in newspaper.

“Give me that big one,” Phyllis said, pointing. “I got a real appetite today.” She rolled her eyes at the policeman.

Gabriel picked up the ear and placed it with the others and wrapped them. Phyllis handed him a five-dollar bill.

“Keep the change,” she said. “For your trouble.”

“I’ll have six ears, too,” Darnelle said to Ruby. Ruby selected the ears, wrapped them in paper, and handed them to Darnelle. Darnelle pressed a bill into Ruby’s hand.

“You keep this,” she said. Ruby felt a lump inside the bill, but said nothing. She watched the two women walk up the sidewalk. Phyllis leaned against the big blond woman Darnelle as she hobbled along. When the two of them reached Shenandoah Avenue, they dumped the parcels in the city trash can.

On the journey up Bent Mountain Ruby rode in silence in the pickup, holding the bauble in the folds of her skirt. She could see the stamped letters on the back of the setting, Made in Taiwan. She remembered the smell of the women’s perfume.

That evening, after they had milked the cows and eaten supper and she had washed the dishes, they sat out on the porch, watching fireflies in the marsh. Her father seemed uneasy in his chair.

“The truth is, Ruby, your Momma ain’t dead. I mean, she may not be dead. She just up and left.”

“I reckon somehow I knew that, Daddy.”

“You knew that?”

“She just seemed like too good a woman.”

“An angel on earth. She just got wayward.”

“I know, Daddy. That must have hurt you.”

“When you was born she told me she had never seen anything as beautiful and never would again.”

She reached out in the darkness and took his hand.

“Thank you, Daddy. You go to sleep now.”
“All right, child.”

As her father rose to go upstairs, Ruby touched the pearl that lay against her breast under her dress.

“Is it true about Cleopatra, Daddy? That she ruled dominions and realms?”

“I wouldn’t give them women much thought, Ruby.”

“But is it true?”

“Yes, child, I reckon it’s true.”

“Good night, Daddy.”

“Good night, child.”

Ruby listened to her father’s tread as he went up the steps. She thought about the battleships and aircraft carriers she had seen on television in the port of Norfolk, the young men in their crisp uniforms. She could feel her heart beating. In the photograph, her mother’s hair was bound in a net that looked like silver. A shadow moved in the darkness of the trees beyond the marsh. She could barely make out the screech owl alighting on a branch. A firefly skimmed close. She folded her hands on her lap in its cold green light. A scent of honeysuckle was in the air, and she breathed deeply. She would not leave this evening.


Ross Howell lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, and diva, English cocker spaniel Pinot. He’s working on a novel based on the life of his grandfather and a collection of short stories. His most recent publication is “The War Song of Thomas Ingles.”