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The Healing Properties of Water
The Healing Properties of Water
By Michelle Miller
Down at the creek, the one just south of Mayberry Road, down where that young Thompson boy had his throat slit by a vagrant a long time ago, I used to creep away with Robbie the summer after my mother died and make love. Stretched before the pines, we’d lay exposed on the pebble-strewn bank and share our bare skin in the moonlight.
And when Jack came back from the city on weekends, and he and papa drank together, I learned to hide along those banks for the worst hours of the afternoon. Jack was six feet tall, with a mat of brown hair that hung over his eyes and ears. He made rocking chairs in the city. The past year in the factory had made his hands rough and stiff. Every penny he earned disappeared in his cupboard or came home for papa to drink.
When he came to visit, he always brought a little liquor, some ‘fine city malt’ and papa would shout about not having enough money to buy some for himself, and about the foreman who’d hired him to work the mine and sent him away after a day because he’d smelled alcohol on papa’s breath. And when the two had finished off a bottle of the brown stuff papa liked, and papa left to get more with Jack’s money, Jack would cry softly and tell me he was sorry. So sorry he left me here all alone with papa. So sorry he couldn’t take me with him to his small apartment overlooking the Tenth Street Grocer. So sorry he didn’t stand up to papa for all he did to me. Starting today, he’d swear, he would do it.
Once, during one of these fits, he had pressed my hand to his body, and with a sob, ran it up the seam of his slacks. I gasped, a small gasp, some part of a moan caught in my throat. When I looked up, Jack had tears in his eyes.
Robbie was different from papa and Jack. Robbie lived his life doing everything except drinking. He got up before the sun and crawled out of the mine just after it set. He said the moon was his sun and I was his afternoon picnic. Those summer nights by the river!
His hands would wander my knees, then my thighs. And I would take his head in my hands, press my shoulders and hips into the smooth rivershore rocks, and inhale.
* * *
The first thing she noticed was that her skin no longer caught the moonlight. From somewhere beyond the pines, the sound of machinery filled the air. There were fewer trees. Between their thin branches, cold headlights slipped through now and then to create unnatural shadows over the pebbles. She watched the shadows stretch and stretch, and then shrink back upon themselves and disappear. Now and then she caught a glimmer of light from the dew on the rocks.
Her first breath beyond the conditioned air of the airport had been an overwhelming experience. In one breath, she had taken in the food stalls, trash bins in the alleyways, and the fine perfumes and colognes which swept down from the upscale shops around the corner.
She hadn’t exactly expected to find brick buildings and unmarked concrete roads, but she had imagined a world with if not the same design, then at least the same foundations.
Not until the taxi had brought her the thirty miles or so beyond the city, and the vehicle had passed the aging church where she’d married Gregory and from which he had dragged her and their few possessions to the train station and another world, did a sense of relief tingle in her fingertips. The church remained, and if the church, then perhaps the creek.
She had not come here to find him. She knew that would not be possible. Robbie had died eight years ago from cancer related to work in the pit. He had never tried to make contact with her over the years—neither right after her arranged marriage nor after Gregory’s death ten years ago; likewise, she had never attempted to contact him. From what little she gathered from old friends in the area, he had married late—nearly ten years after her own marriage to Gregory—and he’d had two children, both of whom died young.
The woman brought a hand to her belly and felt the pliable flesh there. For a time, she had been the vessel of mystery, and within her had resided a manifestation of hope. It had belonged to her and Robbie, to the summer spent beside the creek. But life had ended when Gregory took her and fled from her reputation to Memphis. And when they laid the stillborn in her arms, and she drew a breath so deep it made her flesh crawl, she had breathed in the scent of Spanish moss and Mississippi pines.
She had borne Gregory four sons. Each son had tried his whole life to win her warmth, the little smiles they caught on her mouth in forgotten moments as she baked casseroles or stirred batter for their pancakes. And when their attempts faded with the onset of manhood, and they finally left her alone with Gregory, Gregory in turn had left her a widow. Her whole life, she came to see, had been spent apart from everyone.
* * *
The water swirls between her ankles and knees. It mounts against her waist, then her chest. She feels a whisper through her body like those she has spent the midnight hours of twenty years trying to remember. Her shoulders roll back and she feels smooth riverrock beneath her hips. Her lips part and moonlight fills her like water trickling into a vase. She takes a breath so deep and long it makes her flesh crawl and eyelids tremble. It is the earthy smell of Robbie’s skin, the iron-sweet smell of her stillborn child. It is the smell of Mississippi pines and Spanish moss at midnight.