by Ashley Hughes
Naomi is having her breakfast, breaking her bread, inspecting her husband. Nancy leans against the kitchen table until it creaks and then keeps leaning. This bothers her. Nancy chews so that she can hear him, right over the kettle’s whistle. He eats off the plate she made for him, bites off the fork she handed him. Otherwise, he doesn’t eat off a plate, doesn’t bite off a fork, just grazes and digs his fingers in wherever they can dig. That bothers her too, but he’s here now. It happens. Mother says it’s normal, but—
“You don’t shave anymore?” she asks him.
Naomi stares at him. His mouth is firmly shut. He swallows and then shrugs his bristled shoulders. His big head bobs on his skinny neck and she doesn’t recognize him. The other night Naomi told Mother—all he does is sneak food and eat and pretend to go to work and I watch his head grow—but Mother didn’t listen. Mother sucked her teeth and Naomi said, I know his head is growing. I’ve been measuring it against the hallway lamp every time he walks past. It—
Mother sucked her teeth again. So, this what you do? she wanted to know. Instead of giving me gran babies, you studying heads? She hadn’t seen the head, or the bristles, or the way the shadows of his arms danced in the lamplight. Naomi only realized this as Mother hung up. If she had seen, she would have known.
At night, his arms strangle her, hairs scratching her all over. Like needles, they dig in. One arm wrapped around her neck, one arm around her waist. One arm entangles between her thighs, the other keeping her knees knocked together. His legs pin her down to the bed. Grazed against her shallow cheek, his teeth, sharp and wet.
Back in the day, Naomi was cornucopia, was the plenty, was the hole that always would provide if only the right man reached inside her. She was the long list of crackling words spat out. She was rosebud lips snarling and punctured nostrils flaring—everyday growing prettier and lonelier and scarier. She was the fastest, the flyest, the meanest, the baddest, and they all hissed when she flew by, talking about:
“It fades away.”
“She the one they fished out the bush—still got the brambles pinned inside her,” she hears them say. “She not sweet to me. Pins and needles is all she is,” and she tugs at Mother’s skirt, and she asks her what they mean. “Why they always talking about me?” she asks. Beware, echoing inside her ears, it fades away.
“Little girl, the people and them talking about they own business.” Mother hadn’t heard any of the hissing. “Who’s worried about you?”
Nowadays, she shuffles through the marketplace. Pins and brambles, now. Fruit that’s now no longer fresh, just soft and rotting beneath a cloud of fruit flies. She feels up pears and pokes at fisheyes, hearing the echo of “She the one they fished out the bush—still got the brambles pinned inside her.” Back in the day, back when folk remembered her.
It’s not a big house. It has two bedrooms and six or seven rooms in all, which is more than enough for the pair of them. Mother had wanted to know where they’d put the children, where was the room to grow? But Naomi had been perched on the porch railing, legs swinging and dangling over the side, eyes far away and stuck on the horizon. This was the first time she’d fallen in love and at her big age, but she didn’t know that it was the first real time, for a moment all alone with the sea foam and the colors blossoming and caressing all beside it.
Mother had stared at her, grim-faced and scowling. She had never been a woman with a bitter mouth, but she had grown restless and anxious. She had been Mother for almost forty years now and wanted a new name now: Nana, Grandma, Grandmother, any would do. If it were up to her, she would be Grandmother already, but it wasn’t up to her. It was all up to Naomi, who was too busy swinging her legs and dreaming.
“You’re not a little girl anymore,” Mother told Naomi.
“I know,” Naomi finally answered, a moment too late. Next to her, Nancy leaned over the railing, watching her and smiling, running his slender fingers up inside the bottom of her blouse.
“Does it hurt when I touch you?” she had asked him one night.
“Nah,” he’d said.
“Trying to tell me you don’t feel these pins and brambles?”
Nancy pulled her close against his chest, her brow locked in between his clavicles. Back then, his skin was butterscotch, he smelled like ox tails and sandalwood, had a normal shaped head, had the right number of arms and legs. She liked it when he held her.
“Let’s see,” he’d hummed, thoughtful, curling all up and around her. His whiskers tickled the spaces between her tight braids. “No pins yet.”
“Give it time,” she’d murmured. “It’s there, right beneath the skin.”
“I know what’s beneath your skin. I think I’ll bite into you one day and guava juice will dribble down my chin,” and he’d kept going, kept laughing—at her, but she hadn’t known that yet—and telling her she was too soft to fear, too soft to break, or fear breaking.
Tonight, she lays in bed, holding her breath, dreading her loneliness, praying to remain alone. She prods the inside of her arms, searching for the old burrs. Can’t be that Nancy was right. Can’t be that the only thing between her bones and skin is soft flesh and fruit juice. She keeps prodding, pushing her pointer finger harder, pressing her fingernails into her forearm. She flinches and then sighs, relieved. She holds up her finger in the air, squinting at the droplet of blood gliding down on her finger. She’s found her brambles, the last wild thing still growing and blooming inside her.
Right where the front yard grazes the road, Naomi and Nancy had stacked a wall of cinderblocks. At the time, she had painted each block, alternating between white and yellow, leaving Nancy to stack them, but he returned with many different paint cans, dabbing the blocks in oranges, blues, and purples, twisting the center blocks to reveal hollow frames that gave the wind a way through. Naomi returned when he was half-finished and ruined three good blocks by trying to help.
The wall is in the palette of a sunrise now. Naomi comes out when the sky is dark and leans on her wall, waiting until the sky matches it and the breadman comes carrying the perfume of a bakery. The bread man has a name. It’s Jacob, but Naomi won’t use it because names foster rapport. She and Nancy smile with their mouths and their teeth, tight and smooth. The bread man smiles with his whole face, everything crinkling. The first time he met Naomi, they had shook hands and he’d flinched, flexing his hands and frowning at his reddened palm.
“Good morning,” the bread man always says and then he asks about Mother even though by the time he reaches Naomi, he’s already entered and left Mother’s house at the foot of the hill.
“Mother’s good.” Naomi takes her bread and loses her money. She drifts back into her home. “You?” she asks, halfhearted, already halfway up the path to her front steps, the bread man already climbing into his truck.
Naomi takes a morning nap and then returns to her spot. She waits for Aunt Mary to come down from over the hilltop, kicking up dirt and pebbles as she goes, the sweat and the dirt mixing and encrusting on her shins and the hem of her faded skirt. She presses up the wall and stands there for a moment, sorting through her stories, picking out the one that will taste sweetest on her tongue.
Aunt Mary stops coming but Naomi doesn’t wonder. There’s still Mother down the hill. Even if Aunt Mary, even if the bread man doesn’t come, Mother will come. Then they will embrace and go inside the house together. They will laugh and share and sometimes Mother leaves with her eyes bright and sometimes Mother leaves because she has said—where is your husband, the house has a smell, there are too many cobwebs in here, what happened to your arm, why are you straighter when you should be rounder your eyes are trembling again, you hearing those voices whispering about you in the streets again?—and Naomi has said nothing.
Naomi has shut herself in her bedroom and touched her stomach and said to her pillow, “There are too many cobwebs in here.” Today the sun sits high, and Naomi hasn’t left her bed. Her wrist her neck her shoulder are all sore, but she can’t rub them. She wants to get out of bed and lean on the wall and wait for Mother to arrive and have all forgotten, but she can only wait until her arms and legs unfurl again and until the time has become too late.
The house sits lodged into a hillside. If Naomi walks far enough into the backyard and stands correctly, she can see where blue skies touch blue waters. At the right time of the day, sunbeams appear, and the blue turns to glitter and she goes to the back door to see. She pushes the door open, but it doesn’t open. It’s stuck. White threads come loose and peek out between the door and the doorway. She bends down for a closer look and there’s a skittering up the inside of her legs. She jumps, spins around, sees her husband grinning at her. Her skin crawls and tightens. He tilts his swollen papaya head to the side, bloodshot eyes rolling all around and over her, grin growing until he bares his box-cutter teeth.
She presses her back against the door. She is coming to realize—his touch is silken and sticking. “Help me open the door.” Her voice cracks and he hums, thoughtful.
“Nah,” he finally says and wraps his needle fingers around her wrist, leading her back inside, through the kitchen, the living room, the hallway, into the bedroom again. It’s easy to make her follow. When his grip tightens, it hurts her and slices.
“I’m not as young as I used to be. I know.” Back then, she had breathed against his chest, “I don’t need you calling me little girl”, but his laughter had been loud enough that not even she could hear her words, never mind remember that they had been said.
The next morning, she finds silken strands, white as moonlight, tied and braided between her thighs, tucked right into the places he’d burrowed into the night before. She stretches her arms out and they tremble, too long and too lean. Beware, as they say, it all fades away.
Naomi loves the house with all the doors cracked open and flapping, all the windows up and open, letting the light and the breeze inside. She loves her husband with his human head and soft hands. Today she walks through a house which has been sealed shut. She pushes the front door open, but it won’t open.
She presses the window shutters to let the breeze inside but they won’t let. She slaps the glass. There’s a skittering above her head, but she won’t look up. She drags a kitchen chair they’d stolen from their own wedding reception to the big window in the front of the house and tosses it at the window. That does nothing. The chair bounces right back and lies at her feet, twists its wooden body to look at Nancy. It lies at her feet, all stiff, but twisting towards its daddy. He laughs at her.
He skitters out from his hiding place, but she isn’t looking at him. She’s looking at her arm, where the scratched and beaten skin has scabbed over and blackened, harsh stripes against red brown skin that had once glimmered smooth and uninterrupted. She picks up the lamp she’d bought at market, before they’d even met, and that crashes right through, spraying broken glass all over the porch’s floor. It leaves a jagged hole that isn’t large enough.
What was one more slice? she figures, what was one more cut? And then she scrambles through, her soft palms and back cut by the resilient shards extending from the edges, landing crumpled among glass pieces on the front porch. Nancy’s head comes bursting through the glass hole behind her, big as a jackfruit, spraying even more glass all over. He hovers there, squeezing the rest of his body through, his wide shoulders bumping against the window frame, stalling his pursuit. Naomi limps down the steps that lead from the front porch to the yard, down the path that leads from the yard to the village. Nancy’s big eyes watch and widen.
As she stumbles onto the dirt road coming up and down the hill, she finds that this is where the air and the salt had been hiding, but not the noise or the life. The village had never been so quiet. She stops by her Aunt Mary’s booth but no one answers when she knocks. The door swings open and all it reveals is dust and stocked shelves.
Naomi stops in front of Mother’s little house, but the house is still and gray and the door is flapping open in the wind, which isn’t like her. The breeze gives her a chill and ever since hoodlums robbed Aunt Mary’s booth, Naomi’s mother began locking her own doors. Naomi circles around the house, thinking she’ll press her fingers into the swinging door’s soft spot, where age and rain had rotted it, forcing a gap just big enough for her slight hand to slip in and flick open the latch, but when she rounds the final corner, the swinging door’s already swinging. Mother’s basket is toppled onto the floor, apples and aloes scattered across the floor. The aloes have browned and the apples have shriveled.
Flies crowd onto Mother’s kitchen counter and cobwebs crowd into the room’s corners, the spaces between the back and the seat of Mother’s chairs, the ledge and the plane of Mother’s windows. Naomi rushes into the kitchen, her arms flailing, frightening the flies so they loop around in the skies, hitting her face. She hopes they loop into the corners, brush against the chairs and the windows. When flies become food for spiders, it’s their own fault. Even if the spider sets the trap, the spider can’t eat if the fly doesn’t pursue.
Light comes in and out as the door moves, revealing the clouds of dust that plumed and glimmered. Mother cleans her house regular as prayer. Every morning while Naomi waits for bread and gossip, even if Naomi is too lazy or been spun around too long by Nancy the night before with his teeth sunk into her wrist her neck her shoulder, Mother rises up to sweep and wipe down.
Then Mother should have come to nag Naomi but in these recent days, she hadn’t. Now, in the silence, Naomi’s memory wakes up and realizes it, all the ones who should’ve visited who hadn’t. Mother, Aunt Mary, the bread man. Even if others don’t visit, will see the empty wall and turn away, Mother wouldn’t. Mother would run in the front door, especially if there was no Naomi waiting for her, leaning on the wall, alive and in one piece and putting Mother’s mind at ease. But Mother hadn’t run through any doors lately.
Naomi leaves Mother’s house, gripping Mother’s basket, shaking and saying to herself, “She’s by the docks, inspecting fish.” But mother hasn’t gone back to the docks since the fish man’s body was seen floating, blue and bloated. And where will she put the fish, if not in the basket left behind? She forgot, Naomi decides. She has another basket. To be safe, I’ll bring this one to her. Her grip on the handle tightens.
Naomi stops thinking. She finds the breadman’s truck dented and abandoned in the village’s center. Empty, shredded bread boxes spill out the open bed truck, but the key is still in the ignition. She climbs in and begins to drive, barreling through the narrow gravel roads which weave between colorful little shops and houses, empty porches where old men and women should be snoozing with grandchildren rolling at their feet, empty weed-dotted yards where there should be children running and screaming and women walking up to the fence to hail their friends and men carting shovels and lawn mowers.
“She’s gone to market, weighing beef and mangos,” Naomi says. She leans out the window, just to check, but in the corner of her eyes, a spider unravels. She keeps driving.
She intends to keep driving until she finds someone, anyone with soft hands or only two hands, whichever comes first. But instead, she drives into the tall bush roads and keeps driving until the truck stops, creaking and straining against a large blanket of woven strands. She half climbs and half falls out of the truck, her neck bending more and more back as she watches the blanket rise up, not only framed and held up into the brush but woven into it, peaking out between the brush for as far as she can squint on each side. They glint white in the sunlight and feel silken to the touch. There is an undesired familiarity. She retreats back to the truck, deciding to drive elsewhere, deciding to run Nancy over if he gets in her way. But she pauses when faced with her own reflection in the truck’s dusted front mirror.
That reflection’s pattern dances all along her face and in the light of that reflection, she finds every line she’d been running from, crisscrossed and haggard, cheek bones pushed too close to the skin. She laughs. It’s all been waiting with the man she’d run right to! All along! If only Mother had known. She’d been so afraid of being and growing old and dying and worst of all, doing it all alone, but what a joke—the big disaster already came and she hadn’t noticed.
When have I ever been so alone? she thinks.
Nancy stops in the middle of the road, but she won’t look at him.
“Back in my day,” he says in that storyteller’s way he used to murmur in her ear until she leaned in, echoing back those old words that had once run through her mind, seeing herself in badness and in flight, “I was the fastest, the slyest, the meanest, the maddest, and they all whispered when I flew by.” He waits and waits, but all she does is stare into the bush. “You understand.”
“I don’t,” she says, and she means it. What flyest, what meanest, what baddest—those were old words. Stale whispers that never even entered her ear. She doesn’t absorb the change in Nancy’s words. She doesn’t notice and she won’t remember that the flyest and the baddest was her. Nancy had only ever managed a measure of slyness and madness in his time.
He shakes his head, disappointed. She almost apologizes. “You don’t know what you know.”
“I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” There is a muddy, minty, suffocating stink between these trees and between them. “I’m leaving you.”
“Ok,” he said, a smile beginning to quiver onto his face, “but how you gonna do that?”
That’s a good question. As far as good questions to ask each other, they have options. Where will you go? Who will help you? Is there anyone left? If she asks, maybe he’ll answer. Village being what it is, they have to depend on one another for conversation, but Naomi grimaces, her mouth clamped shut. She considers surrender, the bush, returning, but then she remembers Mother’s basket. If not her, who will disappoint Mother?
She gazes at Nancy, stares at him, dead eyed, until his smile disappears and there’s only the quiver left. She approaches him, circling. A buzz rises in her throat. She takes his hand, pins and brambles pressed against her skin—he flinches. “You feel those?” She squeezes his big hand with her small hand, small and tight enough to slice through. “Just give it time.”
Ashley Hughes is a fiction writer who teaches English Language High School at a Florida High School. She recently graduated with a Master of Arts in English from Auburn University.