At the Mouth
This girl named Ella Robinson lived at the end of a long, oyster shell lane just up from the Tuckahoe River public landing. Man, that landing was a dump. A sign said a hundred-fifty dollar fine for littering, but teenagers threw out all kinds of empty beer cans. Fishermen tossed empty bait containers, sun-cracked cup holders and snarled lines, and hunters left shot boxes and red and green shells and torn magazines with their pictures of soft-eyed deer. Hotrod exhaust dirtied all the honeysuckle at the pavement’s edge, while off the landing, the Tuckahoe coiled by brown and tidal. People around here remember how a boy’s yellow Labrador jumped after a stick and disappeared into a river whorl, all wet-flattened fur and tawny head. Farmers say the current sucks down tree branches as big as a man’s wrist. Hunters swear they’ve seen pintail ducks struggle to keep their balance, and the fishermen warn that rowing against the drift is harder than skinning a catfish. After her crazy grandmother died, Ella Robinson stood at the riverside with the glass shards and used condoms, like a heron looking on the water. I imagine that’s how she met all the men. I’m not telling you which one I am.
Ella talked all the time. She was like a lonely fishing net I got caught up in. Once, she told me how her last day of high school she came back to a kitchen floor heaped with her grandmother’s frame, face ashen and her eyes bulging like a crab’s. Ella called 911, and the ambulance driver said Grandmother had choked on her tongue. “Poor woman,” he said. Ella told me this with a weird look.
Other men got free, but not me, not all the time. I listened to how Ella attended graduation alone and how afterward she sat in the quiet house and imagined the husky blond ambulance man saying over and over, Poor woman. On Monday, she drove the pickup back to school and found the art teacher packing up for summer. She asked for help casting her body in plaster, a full-scale replica of herself kneeling, one hand to the mouth as if covering a yawn. People are still wondering about that. I think the art teacher saw herself in Ella, and that’s why she said yes. Once both halves of Ella’s body were cast, and the plaster dry in the mould, and the mould chipped away, Ella drove herself home in the bed of Grandmother’s pickup. She told me how she set the statue on the porch over a tarp to catch the spills and brushed on paint the color of eggshell. One palm, two knees, and ten toes she painted green as grass. With a camelhair brush, she drew hydrangea blossoms on the breasts, and hollyhocks creeping up the thighs, and a bright hibiscus on the crotch, and cornflowers over each eye. She glued a crocheted doily from Grandmother’s dresser on the crown.
I imagine her pausing and sucking her thumbnail. Watching a wasp bump at the kitchen window, trying to get inside.
Ella’s knees, double-jointed like the rest of her, warped back when she stood on the edge of the Tuckahoe. God, I loved Ella’s legs. They locked into hard curves. Ever since she was a kid she looked almost the same. A star-shaped scar on her temple where she’d been bitten by a dog. Her crooked yellow-tone face narrowed to a point like a branch tip on a fruit tree. She had full breasts, low hips, a protruding bellybutton. She talked a lot about how her period had come when she was only twelve. She imitated how her Grandmother had snapped, “Why’d it have to happen? Just like your mother, too early with her first blood.” She’d read the Bible to Ella, her gray braid wrapping her head like a pussy willow halo. “If a man lies with a woman during her menstrual period, they shall be cut off from their people for they have laid bare the flowing fountain of blood.” Ella told me her Grandmother followed that wisdom with a bottle of bubble bath and a box of chocolates.
People around here didn’t understand how crazy old Mrs. Robinson was, but we all knew she saw things that didn’t exist. Invisible cats with names like Pisha and Boddin and Kittoo. Mice the cats caught, which needed to be carried out by imaginary tails. She saw the farmer who managed her land selling out to a strip mall, and rivers too polluted to swim in. Sometimes she saw Jesus, or one of His saints, and forgot Ella’s name.
Hidden from the road by trees, the one-story Robinson house contained two bedrooms and a bath, a kitchen, a living room with an old upright piano, and a concrete basement. Outside, a raised porch surveyed the lawn. White siding dropped into the deep, dry, window wells. Ella told me how evenings after Grandmother died, she sank into bubble baths lit by candles from underneath Grandmother’s bed.
The first time she saw something that didn’t exist, it was Grandmother, floating above the water like a woman in a mirror. “Pookin?” the figure asked, its voice like gravel. “Do not fear those who kill the body.”
Ella’s hands opened like smooth buds in the candle shadows, her Grandmother’s hands like prunes with sharp, scratching rings.
“Pookin, get up.”
Ella put her hands over her ears but that couldn’t keep Grandmother out.
“The Lord’s voice shakes the oaks and strips leaves from the trees. Go down to the landing to pick up trash.”
The clock on the bathroom shelf reflected a moon floating in the sky. The landing would be busy with kids smoking cigarettes on car hoods and necking in back seats. Ella dressed and grabbed a cold bottle of ginger ale. She strode across the oyster shells, light as a cat, and turned on the macadam road. Her hands glowed white on the ends of her arms. White sneakers shone from the bottom of her robe.
To her surprise, the landing was deserted. No parties, no teenagers, no cars. Just willow tree branches curled up in the mud. Ella told me she didn’t know what to do so she drank the last of her soda and picked up a few cigarette butts and stuffed them in the empty bottle, gingerly, like a girl on a beach collecting shells. Back home she set the bottle, a couple of broken Styrofoam cups, and a pair of discarded underpants on the porch by her painted statue. She washed her hands with sage-scented soap from Grandmother’s drawers.
Once Ella told me how when she was twelve, with her period and newly grown breasts, she and Grandmother paged through a graphic book on sex. Grandmother Oh’d over the pictures and covered her mouth. She told Ella to beware what men might do despite God’s law, and that Ella better not try this monkey-business. Then she made some phone calls, during which Ella heard screaming and cursing. At dinner that night, dumplings and gravy, people in uniforms arrived, while Ella hid in the cupboard. They took Grandmother away. The next day, Ella rode the bus to school, came home, warmed leftovers, and ate quietly by herself. When the door opened, there stood Grandmother.
“A dog goes back to what it’s vomited. That’s Proverbs Twenty-Six Eleven.”
Ella thought of the naked pictures and dog vomit and eating dumplings and gravy as if these events were tied together. She didn’t know where the sex book had come from, but she knew where it ended up. Grandmother threw it in the trash.
After that first time, Grandmother frequently sent Ella down to the landing. The instructions came late on calm, beautiful nights. Crickets creaked in the sumac and honeysuckle. Cicadas screeched in the willow trees. Ella would walk down the country road in the dark, her legs like stalks of blood and muscle, limbs of God. She carried the trash back to the house in thin white grocery bags. Bags full of plastic and paper and aluminum and glass. They piled up on the porch. They collected in the living room by Grandmother’s piano under the crucifix. They mounded in Ella’s old bedroom, which grew dusty, and in Grandmother’s bedroom, where Ella now slept. No one came to visit except the farmer who worked the fields. He told Ella he was checking up on her. It made her uneasy. The house smelled of rust and old beer and wet socks. She kept the farmer on the porch, where he stared at the naked statue, hand up to its mouth as if bored or perhaps surprised.
One day, Ella was down at the Tuckahoe, thinking, she told me, of a dead snapping turtle she’d found shrunken in the window well. Shell separated from the withered body.
“Pookin?” Grandmother appeared on the water, one finger twirling her long gray hair. “Divided tongues like tongues of fire fell on the disciples’ heads and they could speak in wild languages.”
“Poor turtle,” Ella said. “Walked up from the river to lay eggs and fell in a hole.”
“Take out the trash,” Grandmother said. “At the willow I will comfort you with flagons and point out those who need you.”
Ella never seemed to understand scripture but she knew holy words. Next morning, she emptied the bags on the lawn for the wind to blow away. She buried the turtle carcass under the hydrangea. She picked up her naked statue and hid it in her bed. Down at the landing that afternoon, Grandmother showed her the first man. Hip-high in the river, he was stringing decoys. The wooden ducks stretched away from him like a half moon. Ella told me how she heard Grandmother whisper, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief.”
Ella waded into the water. “I’m a missionary,” she said, and kissed the man’s hand. “Will you come home with me?”
The man, a white middle-aged trucker, delivers fuel out of Baltimore. His wife owns Glenda’s Wild Den of Tanning on Goldsborough Street, and he still fishes every weekend. That afternoon, back in Grandmother’s bed, Ella traced one of three inky serpents tattooed on his shoulder. She looked at the ceiling and said, “Pookin.”
“The hell?” the trucker laughed.
“Please,” she said, head back and eyes closed. “That’s what Grandmother calls me.” She opened her mouth, neat as a cat, and sucked in his tongue. After she lost her virginity, she asked him if he knew anything about flagons.
“Girl, what the fuck are you about?”
She asked the trucker to bring a photograph so she could see him when he wasn’t there.
“Like a dried-up spring,” Grandmother intoned. “A cloud blown along by storms.”
The second man, a light-black sales agent at Radio Shack, still drives down to the landing to mull over how he hates his job. Ella told me he smelled like furniture polish and carried condoms in his wallet. With Ella, he liked to kiss and not to talk. Once, hoping he might show a little curiosity, she tried a few lines Grandmother had spoken.
“The voice of the Lord breaks cedars,” she said.
The salesman didn’t reply. She said she liked the elastic bubble that rose on top of the condom. He let her pinch it. It was tiny and translucent like spit. He breathed lemony hot in her ear. Ella asked him to bring a photograph.
“Three bear record in heaven,” Grandmother said. “God is love.”
The third man sank his teeth into Ella’s neck and held on like a puppy. He goes to Chesapeake Community College and works at the Pizza Hut on Route 50. He still lives with his mother, likes fishing for catfish, and is short and squat.
“I am the rose of sharon,” Ella said to him.
“Uh huh,” the young man said.
“And the lily of the valley.” She wanted to watch his face but he kept it buried in her hair. He couldn’t reply without taking his lips off the back of her neck, which he’d been biting, steadfast as a pit bull. “God,” she said in intervals to the wall as he pounded, “God, God, God.” The headboard bobbed inches in front of her mouth. He whimpered, and Ella waited for him to revive, but when he came to his senses, he buttoned his pants and was out the door.
At her request, each man brought a picture of himself, which Ella kept in a sequined box. She dressed Grandmother’s bed with washed silk and set the naked statue beside the piano bench. “Saint Evangeline,” she introduced the statue to her visitors. The trucker had sex with Ella on the shag rug next to the Saint, and so did the salesman, and the young guy, and all of us, gulping like catfish on the floor.
On evenings when no one came to visit, Ella walked down to the landing. Often I followed in secret just to see what she would do.
One night in late August, Ella sat alone on the edge of the boat ramp over the river. It had been almost three months since Grandmother’s death.
I could see her staring down, and I knew Grandmother was there, appearing to her like a marsh lily. Then I heard a voice. “False prophets act by instinct.” It sounded eerie yet sharp.
Then Ella’s own voice came. “My blood has stopped,” she said.
“Animals born to be captured and killed,” the other snapped. “Why is there trash in my house?”
Ella turned to go, and the willow swept her with its fingers. “For I am sick, si-ick, si-i-ick of love,” she sang as she strode back up the lane. On the porch, she bent as if imaginary animals swirled around her ankles, and she lay down on the living room floor with the piano and the crucifix and Saint Evangeline, who had no mouth, only pale fingers stuck to painted lips. I watched through the screen door as Ella twitched in her sleep, and late, late that night, I heard more hushed voices.
“Why didn’t you plant a rusty nail to keep the hydrangeas blue?”
“You can talk too?” Ella whispered to Saint Evangeline, her eyes wide brown pools.
“You’re not real,” Ella said.
“A turtle lays eggs on sand,” the Saint said. “Talk to your lovers. A baby can’t grow in sand.”
Ella fell back asleep, but Saint Evangeline hovered, staring at me with shocked flower eyes.
The married trucker cursed during sex, but otherwise he was kind to Ella, and she told me how she broached the subject of her pregnancy with him several times.
“Pookin,” she said quietly to the ceiling. “We forgot about the eggs.” She lifted the back of her head from the pillow and stared at a vein riding his forehead, and he sucked the skin around her swollen nipple, his mouth a shovel. She handed him a condom.
“The fuck you get those?” he said. “Don’t worry, sweetie, I’ll pull out in time.”
A mouth can be both rigid and sweet like chocolate, or soft like petals. Of her lovers, Ella most enjoyed kissing the salesman. “The Lord’s voice makes me swell,” she said shyly the next time he came. He put on a butterscotch condom and lifted her off the bed, clutch-palming her buttocks. His lips pressed her mouth like tangerines, and she couldn’t say anything more.
“God,” the young one cried out in bed one day, and Ella flipped over quickly to catch his eye.
“I love you,” she said. “Listen now, my blood’s stopped. Do you”—
“Unh-unh,” he yipped, lips curled.
Grandmother looked cross-eyed up from the sheets. “He who doesn’t listen is deafened by ignorance. There’s a place reserved in the deepest darkness.”
Ella closed her eyes, and later, when she told me all this, so did I.
We all kept coming. It was exciting. It was insane. Pretending to be a cat or a weeping willow, Ella would lower herself onto us in the middle of the bed, smiling at the moment of entry and the union of parts. She would ask if we felt God’s love, and I’m ashamed to tell you that not one man said yes.
When no one was around, she worked on a plan. Hydrangea sails. Hollyhock oars. A drifting hibiscus boat.
Late September, cornflowers rose from the fields like buoy flags, waving to Ella and aching for her as she walked. The public landing was busy. Country music rolled out of a truck radio, and Ella watched an old man lick beer off his cup. Two yellow Labs sniffed each other, and a girl in pigtails and underwear slid off a lap and ran screaming to a lawn chair. As men and women fished in the Indian summer, Grandmother glared from behind a tree. She waved her rings, sharp as the bill of a shrike.
“No one knows the day, nor the hour.” Ella ignored her because Grandmother had been wrong before. She walked home slowly to gather trash hanging in the hydrangea and overgrown lawn and surrounding soybean fields. She stuffed it back into plastic bags, and late that night in Grandmother’s pickup, she moved Saint Evangeline and the trash down to the landing where the stars hung in lines like laundry.
“A pig that’s been washed goes back to roll in the mud, that’s Two-Peter-Two.” That voice, I mean Grandmother’s voice, echoed over the water, and I thought she sounded sad. “You’ll need to tie the plastic tight.”
Next morning, as I shivered at first light, some fishermen skimmed by in the fog. They stood on their johnboat and started pointing at a strange figure on the landing that was headed for the marsh. A human figure crawling like a dog, surrounded by hundreds of white bags. They revved their motor and drew nearer. “Jesus Christ,” said one.
They thudded into the bank of mud.
For Ella that night, moist like hibiscus blossoms, her mission perched her under the tissue paper moon. “Farewell,” she’d said to Grandmother. She’d set Saint Evangeline on the dark bank to watch over her. By the time I understood what was happening in the river, I was too muddled to move, and then I did, and it was too late. The Tuckahoe swept and spiraled around Ella. She was a kingfisher on a branch over the river, then a branch slipping into the flow. A loose decoy turned sideways on the surface. In the river, a plastic bottle, mouth open to the tide.