On the very last day of Agnes Atkins’ sixty-ninth year, she was standing at the kitchen sink, arm deep in a bucket of string beans, her arthritic fingers already raw from peeling potatoes and whipping heavy muffin batter. Her hair, which had been growing unfettered since birth, fell around her in long white tangles, the frazzled tendrils dipping into the dishwater. And as she hurried to wash the remaining string beans at the bottom of the pail before Billy Atkins returned home for dinner, she cut her finger on the jagged aluminum, a distraction from the pain in her hip. On damp days it bothered her, the bones angry and grating against each other through paper-thin cartilage. The hip throbbed still, though not quite as sharply as on the morning after Billy knocked her down the stairs all those years ago.
An accident, Billy had called it, and Agnes remembered waking to him staring at her from the bedroom chair by the window, the sun rising behind him, gilded beams crowning his head. His grin spread in the deepening goldenrod, chilling her blood. That was the last time Agnes witnessed those first rays, the last time that she could bear to look the sunrise in the face. In later years, she had tried to lift her eyes when dawn was just washing away, when she stood in front of the oval window at the stair landing, or when she was sweeping the front porch before breakfast. But she had not been able to do it. Not when every spun ray of gold in those primordial moments reminded Agnes of the beginning of her darkness.
Agnes stood at the sink year after year as her insides putrefied, and there were moments when the stench of her life overpowered her and seized her chest. Nowadays, the smell bothered her more than the fear. Her thoughts swirled with the blood ribbon spiraling down the drain, until a horse whinnying across the little dirt quad where the drab barn stood caught her attention. She peered through the smoky pane at the white yearling, Cotton they called her. Unlike the others, the little horse had always managed to get out, and stood among the ashy dirt, her coat flecked with soot. The yearling looked about nervously, unable to grasp the nature of her captivity or why her spirit fluttered against it.
And as Cotton stood trembling on unsure legs, Agnes was reminded of how she had shook on her wedding night, her father having handed her over to Billy Atkins as he would have traded a Tennessee Walking Horse. Billy had sweated over her in the sweltering heat, grimacing in the lamplight as she quaked. And she remembered something more than her virginity slipping away, before she had gotten the chance to look at it. She had never been able to identify what it was, the thing that had made the breeze on her bare chest feel cold and damp every night since. And she could no longer remember her favorite doll or what the nectar of honeysuckle tasted like. And when she looked in the mirror, her eyes gazed at her from universes too far away to comprehend.
Cotton whinnied again, and Agnes looked at the Appalachians, a wall of gloom in the dying sunlight. They stared back at her, along with the souls of dead Apalachee hovering above their crests. Dark powder spewed from the last remaining coal factory nestled in the scarred valley up river. The stuff fell everywhere, an eternal winter of black snow that rode the back of every breeze, coating blades of grass and the leaves of brittle trees.
“You through yet?” said Billy Atkins from the frame of the back door, startling Agnes. It troubled her that he could still make her jump. Anyone about to turn seventy ought to have seen enough not to startle at anything, Agnes thought. And she had seen more than she thought was possible.
Agnes turned to Billy, nauseated. He brought death in the house, and she could see and smell it on him every day: his rotting teeth, the atrophy of muscle, the decay of flesh, the slugs and worms smashed under his soles. Strands of his towhead were plastered on his speckled scalp, his angular face slashed by a crooked mouth. Billy addressed her in the way his ancestors, once wealthy landowners, spoke to the miners of her father’s forefathers: smoldering contempt. It was something Agnes had always noticed, the way his voice turned rancid at the end of everything he said to her.
“Should eat early,” Billy said, spitting into a tin by the door, looking at Agnes sourly. Marrying Agnes had been a compromise, settlement rather than full payment on his manhood. More than that, she was a constant reminder that he could have had more. Sighing, Billy went to a chair in the corner to whittle wood, to once again cope with his loathing and ruined prospects. In the endless hours of his life, he raged and grieved over basswood and butternut, carving his thoughts with a blade.
“Gotta see about the Wilson deal tomorrow morning,” Billy said, picking up a piece of pine. The Wilson deal was a band of speculators that came around. Billy looked to them for deliverance, recalling the heady days when his grandfather brokered family lands with tycoons from the Rust Belt. Those treasures had long since been spoiled, the promise of wealth dead and buried. And in spite of the blur of dust that choked his land, Billy forced himself to believe that the booty lay just over the gouged hills and under the soil of dying dogwood and hemlock forests.
The sugar in the muffins began to burn and smoke in the oven, reminding Agnes to take them out. There would be no mention of her birthday tomorrow, as had been the case with the last forty. Which was just as well, she thought, since it was on her birthday that she had last seen their daughter, Lily. And it was several years after that before Agnes could bring herself to think about why.
“Dinner’s nearly ready,” Agnes said, wiping her bloody finger on her apron. “Chaw is on the table.”
Billy glanced at the box of tobacco. “I’ll take it atter while,” he said, putting down his chiseled Mourning Dove. His heavy boots, which he did not bother to wipe on the tattered welcome rug or remove when he came into the house, were covered in the thick mud that had collected from heavy rain in the night. “Gotta handle Cotton first,” he said on his way out, slamming the screen door.
Agnes turned back to the sink, picking up a knife to finish the green beans, its mahogany handle now worn down to leathery skin. Her mother had given Agnes the knife as a housewarming gift, her eyes saying Come what may, when she handed it to her. All of the women in Agnes’ family had spent their lives apologizing to the world on behalf of Eve, who began the whole bloody mess, and on behalf of Delilah and the other sirens that had brought everyone to their knees. And they were remorseful on behalf of beauty, which they had always been told was the true original sin, for it had led to devilry, and brought the lust and wrath of men upon the earth. With deep lines carved into their faces and wrinkled, bleached hands, these women renounced comeliness and were penitent for its ravages. They drenched themselves in alpine air, sank tired hips into worn rocking chairs, and were relieved when, at last, men, childbirth and hard times carried desire and want away.
And when, through some force of nature a fresh rose sprouted among them, the women were ready to cut her down. Certain in their duty, they assured her that the future was weight gain and cold beds. Their breasts pressed thin by righteousness, these women descended on the young blossom; reminding her to close her legs, to close her mouth, to remember her manners, to forget her dreams, and to open The Book to Corinthians.
Not that any of that mattered now, Agnes thought as she set the table and placed the rump roast in the center. What good was all that to her now? What was left after everything dear to her lay in a grave of limestone, the chafing of her bones against themselves the only reminder that she was still among the living? Just as she lowered herself uneasily into the chair, she heard the screen door slam again.
“Damned Cotton,” Billy muttered as he hung his work gloves on the rusty nail on the wall. He seated himself quickly at the table and stabbed into the beef, spooning out a heap of mashed potatoes with his other hand.
“Made green beans and muffins too,” said Agnes.
“Don’t want none,” said Billy without looking up from his plate.
Agnes sat listening to him snort and hiss through the meal, his lips smacking as he oscillated from meat to starch. Why should he want anything else? He’s bloated, Agnes thought. He had swallowed her days whole and drained contentment from her nights. She had learned to live through the loudness of his malice, and his relentless thrashing on her nerves. But lately, there were moments when she came to the edges of her anxiety and stepped into a bewildering quiet that she could not explain.
A gentle breeze blew the frayed lace curtains, reminding Agnes of Lily in her nightgown in the upstairs hallway when she was fifteen. Billy had been standing there in the dimness too, a Cyclops with one glassy eye gleaming through the slit of the cracked bedroom door. There were other things Agnes told herself she hadn’t seen or known about. Like the way Billy used to get up in the middle of the night. The bathroom, she had said to herself as she clutched her pillow, his footsteps moving the other way down the hall. He’s just looking in on her, she had said to the hooting owls.
And Agnes convinced herself that she hadn’t seen how Lily’s brown eyes had bulged and turned green that summer. How her cheeks had sunken, almost able to hold rainwater, and her skin had become webbed with veins. How she fluttered about the house, haunting the windows. And when Agnes walked into Lily’s empty room that morning to find her gone, she could only stare at the dragonflies circling the puddles in the yard and wonder if Lily was among them.
In the perfume of lit candles and oak church pews, the women held Agnes’ forearm firmly during mass over the years, reminding her that the devil whispered in the ears of many of their youth from Babylons far away, and that some had fallen victim to his malevolent serenades. Lily would return when He was finished with her, they said, and they would wash away the blood of her sins with their tears.
All these things Agnes boxed up and shelved in the crypts of her mind, until an old question that had been sitting in the back of her throat since the beginning filled her mouth. “What happened to Lily?” she asked, more of herself than of Billy, who dropped his fork.
Billy gave Agnes a look. Lily was white noise to him now; traces of her ever having been there evidenced only by the sighs he thought he heard between thunderclaps in rainstorms. “Don’t matter. She’s gone,” he said, picking up his fork again.
Gravy dripped from the corner of Billy’s mouth, and Agnes wondered if that was what animals looked like after devouring their young. She felt the pain in her hip getting worse, her heart quickening. The evening chill that gripped her most evenings vanished, and she began to feel hot. “I know what you did,” she said at last.
Billy leaned back in his chair, picking his teeth. He had lost the war with everything else, and had only the strength to lord over this last fiefdom and all that was within it. “Weren’t nothing done,” he said.
Silence rolled into the room like fog, and was finally dispersed by the yearling whining and kicking against her stall. “She’s a stubborn something,” said Billy. He looked at her carefully, fingering some tobacco. “Might end up putting her down,” he said.
That last bit that Billy said stayed with Agnes for the rest of the evening. It lodged itself inside of her as she emptied the slop tin and threw out the muffins and string beans. The thing grew, crystallizing and catching fire, burning through the pages of the Sunday school lessons of her youth and the bed sheets of her wedding night. Agnes stood at the screen door and listened to Billy labor with the horses, cursing intermittently and slamming things made of metal. Cotton’s sharp cry cut through the thick air, and she began a song of pitiful mewing. The young mare yielded at length, and joined in the silence of the other horses.
Agnes turned back to the kitchen. After the dishes and the floors, she set about collecting ash from various places in the house: the frames of pictures, the tops of dishes, the headboard upstairs, and the shelves of Lily’s closet. She dusted and scraped up all the ash she could find, opening a window and dumping it in a pile outside. A small mound had accumulated on the lip of the sill. Agnes stared at the ash, and it seemed as if it held all of the bitterness and acrimony of her life.
And for reasons she was certain she would be able to explain to herself later, Agnes went to the cupboard to retrieve Billy’s half-empty whiskey bottle and sat it on the table. He’ll be ready for it when he’s satisfied with the horses, she thought. She went down to the cellar- with some difficulty because the steps were narrow and there was no light- to get the barium crystals. They’ve kept the rodents out for years, thought Agnes, thankful. Now they could be used for something else.
She assembled the collected ash, the bottle, and the barium on the kitchen table. She thought of Lily’s white gown riding the wind, and the sunrise that had seared her eyes and scorched her heart. She poured the ash and the crystals into the bottle, watching them fall in rifts to the bottom. She shook up the whiskey and placed Billy’s favorite cup next to it.
“Agnes!” shouted Billy from the stalls. “Get my taste!”
Agnes sat at the table and waited.
“Agnes!” he shouted again. His voice was full of ire, turning her name into a curse.
Agnes folded her hands and the throbbing in her hip began to subside.
Billy blew into the kitchen, irritated. “Damn it,” he said, snatching the bottle from the table and hastily pouring himself a cup.
Come what may, thought Agnes as she watched him drink.
Billy’s breathing became labored. His face and neck muscles stiffened, hardening into stone. “Thought about it every day,” he stammered, gawking at Agnes, mumbling other unintelligible things full of outrage and disgust. He staggered outside and collapsed in the barn, Agnes following behind with the lightening bugs and the Apalachee looking on. And as she watched him writhing in the dirt and clutching his neck, his face washing over in colors she had never seen before, Agnes felt herself an apothecary salving a troubled spirit with absinthe and nightshade, putting a damned creature down to rest.
* * *
Agnes hadn’t been able to bring herself to look at it in forty years. And now that she was alone, profoundly singular in the way she had been on the very first day of her life, she was ready to gaze upon daybreak. As she eased her tired bones into the sunken chair by the window, dawn spilled through the pane like water. Periwinkle, she thought, pulling a lace shawl over her shoulders. She hadn’t seen that color in a long time, and she waited for the world to reveal itself to her again.
The land was sapphire, the sun just beyond the turn of the earth’s axis, wisps of cobalt running alongside the shadows of tall indigo pines. Silhouetted creatures scurried, stopping to feast on dark treasures scattering the dirt. The old barn was royal purple in the disappearing gloom, regal even as its tired slats leaned somberly to the ground. The rising dawn filled things like seawater: corrugated pails, cracked flower pots, the cab of a broken pick-up truck, the roofless doghouse; bathing, baptizing, and washing away the ash.
The black Appalachians corralled them all, and last night Agnes had released the horses from the barn to run toward the hulking darkness or roam at will. Only Cotton remained in the morning twilight. She stood out by the empty steel feed bins, her startled eyes flashing amethyst. She’ll see that she’s free, thought Agnes, a thin smile spreading across her face. Light descended on the jagged heads of the mountains, rimming the horizon in obsidian and gold, and Agnes greeted the new day.
MOROWA YEJIDÉ is a native of Washington, D.C. Her short stories have appeared in the Istanbul Literary Review, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, The Taj Mahal Review, Underground Voices, and others. Her work was shortlisted for the 2009 Willesden Herald International Short Story Contest and will appear in the 2009 Willesden Herald Anthology. Her stories often focus on the layers of relationships and the inner landscapes of her characters’ minds. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and three sons.