Black Water Madonna

I hope you might have noticed that the characters in these Army stories overlap; that a character from one story will show up in another. It felt like an important thing to do, like a way to give these people a depth for you that I already know.

Anyway. For this weekend, a story about mothers seems appropriate. Enjoy.

Black Water Madonna

     In a space of sky framed by the tops of Georgia pines, far down the trace, she sees the buzzard burst up and out from the trees’ canopy and turn and turn again in a widening wheel on its dark and secret wing, the feathers fanned like a hand’s fingers spread wide. “Body comin,” she tells herself. Someone on the trace, the swamp’s black water footpath become road, and out this far the only reason a person comes is to see Skinny for his dogs, and Skinny’s gone for deer. “Body comin,” she tells herself, the trees, the absent Skinny. “Bring it in.”

     I drive, not watching the road so much as the sandy soil and the trees that pass by on either side, and the stretches of dark water. On this road, there are no other cars. Locals call this place the Coastal Empire: towns like Beaufort, Valdosta, Brunswick, Savannah, between the Okeefenokee and the Appalachians, below the rise of the Piedmont, the low-country pines and swamps of east Georgia. They say the sulfur smell is from the paper mills, but it goes deeper, the trace of moist decay, rot and swamp gas on the hot, still air.
     I know the swamp. Panama, Honduras. This place.
     I am called Luna Skaarsland, because my emigration here required that I take my stepfather’s surname. I cannot pronounce my mother’s mother’s name, full of Xs and Cs and Hs: I am mestiza. Billy rides in the passenger seat. He resembles my stepfather in his face and the clothes he wears, but they all wear those clothes. Billy’s still in uniform, wrinkled dusty camouflage, boots scuffed from a day of live-fire. Private First Class William Broome. The boom of the cannons rattled the windows of my truck when I picked him up at the range. One-five-five millimeter, Bravo Battery, Three Four One Artillery: B for Baby killers, he says. They rain steel on cities from too far away to see, and from the firing end it’s not the falling shriek you hear in movies, only the whickering sound of ripped air.
     My stepfather calls him my boyfriend.
     Military brats, and most locals in military towns, always say they’ll never join. It’s not cool to join; there’s an adversarial sense; you’re not supposed to like soldiers. Most soldiers, I don’t like. Billy is bearable, and sometimes sweet, when he doesn’t try to prove how tough he is. I’ve taken night courses at the community college, and I know how easily scholarships would come for someone like me. Still, though, there’s something inevitable: soon enough, I know, I’ll join. Not for life, not for a twenty-year hitch, but long enough to know and show that I can, my stepfather more than myself. On top of even that, though, there’s the sense of tearing something out, of uprooting. I know there are people who would call it betraying myself, and maybe that’s part of the reason. A year, maybe; maybe two.
     I am driving Billy to buy a dog. We are nearly an hour from Fort Stewart, heading southwest, deeper into the swamp, the road narrowing between thick pines and cypresses and pools of still water, and he tells me to turn just past a group of mailboxes, onto a road that begins as gravel but for the last fifteen miles has been mud and red clay. We’ve got a twelve-pack of American beer, in bottles, behind Billy’s seat. There is a man out here, he says, who will sell him a Rottweiler pup for twenty dollars.
     I have known this land we pass through all my life, and longer. The lush riot of green, the fecund abundance of insects, the blasted black of forest burned. In Panama, it was farmers, clearing acres by slash and burn; here, Georgia Pacific farms pines for paper and burns the swamp with careful forest fires they call controlled burns, to thin out — destroy — the old and dying trees, to give light and air to the young, the new crop. We pass a lake nearly a mile wide and twice as long. Turkey buzzards glide low over the water for dead turtles, carrion. The jagged black stumps of burnt pines jut from the water like a dinosaur’s rotted teeth, and then the lake gives way to the swamp’s thick forest again: swamp-wort, pine, cypress, lilac, may-apple, the waxy shine of poison ivy and poison sumac; patches of mint weed six feet high, skunk cabbage, magnolia; the swamp lily with its poisonous bulb, the sword-fern, Spanish moss hanging from branches like the beards of ancient men. The road is less than six inches higher than the water that snakes and winds and spreads widening beneath the trees to either side, and I punched in four-wheel-drive long ago when we crossed a low place in the road and the tires bogged and spun and groaned in the small stream. Part of me wants to see this place burn.
     The main road in Hinesville, the little town attached to Fort Stewart, is little more than a succession of bars, tattoo parlors, fast food restaurants, and used car lots. It takes less than ten minutes to drive from one end of town to the other. I spend my lunches at the library, doing homework for classes, or sometimes just reading, learning history. I learn that Tonantzin was one aspect of Coatlalopeuh, who also became both la Chingada, or Malinche, the mother and the puta raped by European invaders, and la Virgen de Guadalupe. As Tonantzin, she was the mother of all the gods. Huitzilopochtli sprang from her womb with knives in his hands and killed the men who were attacking her. Later, before the founding of Tenochtitlan, Huitzilopochtli appeared before those who had wandered from the North, from Aztlan, and told them they would receive all that they deserved; he told them they would be given gifts, and would be able to rape whatever women they pleased. Eventually he would behead his sister Malinalxochitl, who was also called Coyolxauhqui, and her son as well, and bury their hearts, and when asked why he did it would only say that she was ugly. There are some legends, though, that say he did it out of jealousy of her power.
     Billy calls my stepfather Top, or First Sergeant, and admires him for his Ranger’s beret.
     My stepfather met my mother, and me, in Panama. He stepped out of the back of an airplane in the dead of night and fell through the sky beneath a silk shroud, dropping down into the jungle, the swamp, his face painted darker than ours, the colors of earth and trees. The typed orders that accompany his medals say he killed four men that night. He killed them with a knife, not a gun, because the men he was with were Rangers as well, and they were silent. I picture the silver arc of the blade, the bright spray of arterial blood. In the picture of their wedding, his and my mother’s, my stepfather wears a bright red ribbon from which hangs a silver cross — the Distinguished Service Cross — as the only ornament on his dress whites.
     In Panama, outside the house of the Papal Nuncio, there were more Americans wearing camouflage, drinking Tecate, reclining on their vehicles and holding their guns. The men who wore green berets — not my stepfather’s black — gave them radios, tapes to play, American music, drums and guitars. Loud, they said. Billy, when I tell him this, calls them psy-ops, Special Forces. He says they know how to make a secret, subtle sort of war. He wanted to learn from them, he said, but could not.
     My mother was a widow when she passed that party outside the house of the Nuncio and my stepfather saw her for the first time. Later, my grandparents told her go with him. Go to the North, they said. She was always afraid of him. His hair, his eyes; what they represented. When she went with him, Panama became even less her place than it had been before, she the native doubly exiled.
     He asked her if she had a nickname, another name, if she were called something else, for her Indian name was long and complicated. “La Chingada,” she told him. He at first did not understand, and called her that, until his soldiers laughed at him, at him telling them about La Chingada, a puta, and one of them who spoke the language finally took him aside with a local, a native, and explained matters in hushed tones, about mestizas and who came before whom.
     He tolerated me, though my father was another man, a man now dead.
     The road narrows and forks. Billy tells me to bear left, and we soon see a house, a sprawling shack of warped and rotting scraps of lumber turned silver-gray, barely darker than the corrugated tin of the roof. There is a chicken-wire pen out back, and I see the dogs within leap and slink over one another. The trees thin here, the house built on a barely perceptible rise, the closest this land will ever have to a hill. A woman sits out front in a white plastic lawn chair, a chair that looks brand new, and chops onions on a smooth knife-scarred plank on her lap, scraping the pieces into a bowl by her side. Thin and dirty, her face lined and darker than my own but sun-dark, she’s a white woman but not white like Billy or my stepfather. She’s always been outside. She wears a shapeless brown dress that is almost the hue of her skin, and does not seem to hear the arrival of my truck.
     “This is it,” Billy says. “This is Slim’s place.” The swamp-flies swarm as we step from the truck. Billy swats himself. He is not yet used to this country. He indicates the woman. “That’s,” he begins, and does not know how to finish, how to identify her. He trails off and turns away, and only when she looks up, only when I see her dark brown eyes does it strike me that she’s my age.

     She sees the boy hit his skin as if it’s crawling off him, as if he wants to peel himself out of his outsides, open up the skin and fold it in and hide its light. She’s heard them coming five miles back, and she intuits that Skinny’s heard as well, that he’s not so far away: something’s keeping him, she knows; he would not be so late. Out there, somewhere, coming in. She sees the girl who came with the soldier boy, sees her eyes, the flash like she’s not his. The girlfriend’s little more than bones and skin, too slim, with her long limbs and long, dark hair. Small breasts and narrow hips like she’s somehow built to swim, a fish with silver flashing at her wrists and ears. “Skinny on the water,” she tells them. She scrapes the last of the onion into the bowl and plunges the tip of the knife’s curved blade into the plank, and stands. “Bringin food, comin in. Drink?”

     Her speech is thick, nearly indecipherable: she eliminates all but the force of her meaning. Billy doesn’t understand her, but I know that Slim’s coming, and I know we were to bring beer. I take a bottle from the twelve-pack in the truck and hand it to her and she pops the top and sucks at it, her throat working. I hear a baby cry from within the house. She hears it also, and looks at me.
     “Always hungry,” she says, though it doesn’t sound like that. It’s thick and dark and rotted, her accent, as if you could turn up her tongue and find black loam, mushrooms and millipedes beneath. She’s already finished the beer, and looks to me, not Billy, and I’m feeling as if I ought to shake her hand or greet her somehow, as if simply giving her something that quickly sufficed for greeting, as if I ought to be ashamed. I understand, though, or think I understand, that this is commerce, not social. We’re here for a transaction between Billy and Slim, not to make friends, and I suddenly hate that impulse within me, the want to be good and understanding, to offer sympathy to the poor and uneducated, to be the missionary.
     I take two more beers from the twelve-pack, and hand one to her. The other one I pop myself. I go around the back of the truck and drop the tailgate, and do a little turn and jumping scoot up on it so I’m sitting with my legs dangling. She walks around the truck — I get the impression she’s seen it before — and leans up against the passenger side, dangling her arms and beer over the bed. Billy’s at the front of the truck, leaning against the grille and looking towards the dog pen. I take a long swallow from my beer. I can feel her studying me.
     She clears her throat. I look over, look at her looking at me. “What do you do?” she asks, in her thick and glottal accent.
     I’m trying to figure out how to answer when Billy comes around from the front of the truck. “Hey,” he says, too loudly. “You. Girl. Where’s Slim?” He hasn’t understood what she said earlier.
     The air hums with flies. He moves towards me, but I pull away. His arms and neck are already spattered with his own gore and the guts of a thousand mosquitoes. He shrugs and continues to slap himself.

     She hears the distant crunch and splash, as if all the boy had to do was ask. Skinny’s coming, walking on black water not a quarter-mile away, walking heavy loaded from the way his distant steps sound, their pace and slow and barely irregular rhythm. There’s the smell of blood, of live blood and doe-fear, the sense that things are not as they ought to be. Skinny doesn’t bring meat this time, she understands. She points: “Right yonder.”

     She points at the line where the rank water begins to lap up about the gnarled feet of the pines, and we hear the plash of watery footsteps before we see him through the trunks of the trees. He’s a thin man, weathered, twenty years older than his daughter, and he does not look up from his bent-over, labored steps. His face is thin like Billy’s, like my stepfather’s: vulpine. He wears old, stained long-sleeved khaki coveralls and there’s a compound bow with its multiple pulleys slung across his chest, a black ballistic nylon sleeve of arrows hanging by his side. He carries a doe on his shoulder that must weigh more than he does. The doe’s belly is full and gravid, her eyes wide and glassy and deep, and he moves with painful slowness beneath her weight. The shaft of an arrow protrudes from the side of her chest. She breathes, though, we see her sides heaving and trembling with the effort, each breath bringing another quick stream of blood from around the arrow’s shaft and, as he approaches, a hollow whistle: his arrow has punctured her lung. “Momma,” he calls, and I do not know if he is telling the state of the doe, or addressing the woman. He reaches the clay of the road and steps up out of the black water and kneels slowly and bows his shoulders and his head, as if in supplication. The doe slides from his back into his arms and he sets her on her good side on the flat dry dirt. Her breathing quickens and she drums and scrabbles her hooves against the dirt in a final futile effort to stand. He looks up at the woman, afraid. “I didn’t see,” he says. “I just shot.” He steps away from the deer, and I look to the woman and then the doe and move closer: wanting something, wanting I do not know what.

     She spits at his face. “Momma,” she says to him. “Momma, momma, momma.” She makes her voice sharp and ugly. A doe, a mother, Skinny not thinking. She curses him like God: mother, water, salt, blood, child. She points to the Army boy. “Get him his dog,” she says. “Take him, you get him his dog. Damned man, fool, killin fool, killin momma.”

     The woman’s retrieved her knife from her cutting board on the chair. Billy follows Slim around towards the pen. I stay by the truck, between the doe and the truck. The woman sits down on the dirt and gently lifts the fore part of the doe’s body into her lap and strokes her fur, bending to kiss her face. I hear the dogs bay joyfully as Slim approaches with Billy, but over that, I hear the ragged breath of the doe. She stares at me across the dying deer. “Doe dead,” she says, and she takes the bright curved knife from the dirt beside her. Bright, tiny pinpoints of blood fleck the doe’s nostrils and the soft fur of her chin. I hear the deer cough, a low, deep, liquid sound: the blood in her lungs.

     “Doe dead,” the woman tells the girl. The girl’s come to squat across from her, now, watching what she does. She sees the girl’s eyes like her own; sees the world dead, drowned in her blood, more, the slim girl and her sign and figure on the woman’s tongue, the mother, maiden, trophy, whore: her blood. She looks at the girl and sees herself liking the girl, liking the slim and pretty girl in the way her own mother liked her. The doe is breathing too quickly now, and she kisses her neck soft fur. The beat of the pulse against her lips.

     She’s kissed the doe’s neck. I understand what she is doing, though I do not want to. From behind the house, there comes the laughter of Billy and Slim and the growl and snap of dog-sounds. When she hears them, the doe makes a small, pitiful sound. The woman spits a loud, harsh command towards the dog-pen, something I cannot understand, gutturals and sibilants, and there is silence.
     Billy’s myths, if he knows them, are classical, so-called Old World: Diana and Actaeon, I think, to my Coatlalopeuh and Huitzilopochtli.
     The woman holds the doe’s head and wrenches it abruptly to the right, and there is a single, loud crack.
     She works quickly now, her eyes flicking occasionally upwards, as if to make sure that I still watch. With the point of the knife, she splits the gravid belly of the doe. The swelling begins just below her ribs and extends to her hindquarters: an easy, straight line, yet she draws it slowly, and I see her watching the depth of the knife’s point even as the now-black blood spills out, and I am silent. She uses both hands, and I gag from the reek of the viscera laid wide. She hurries, and when the cut is made, she plunges her arms into the doe’s body, burying them in gore.
     She comes out with a fawn cradled in her arms. The beast is wet and slick and tiny, but it shivers, and lives. She still has the knife in one hand, and she looks to me. She cannot do this all. She looks to the carcass of the doe, entrails spilling from its split belly, and back to me, and offers it all to me: the carcass, the knife, the newborn deer. “Momma,” she says, and I do not know how she means it.
     I take the knife from her hand.
     She shrugs the dress from her shoulder, and gives the newborn deer her breast. The slick beast finds her nipple and, trembling, begins to suck.

Black Water Madonna

2 thoughts on “Black Water Madonna

  • May 8, 2004 at 12:36 am

    Best one yet. I have to say that of all your stories I enjoyed this one the most. Very entertaining to say the least. Well, all except the nasty tit-sucking foe incident at the end. Are you sure that you were not born in Georgia? I’m starting to wonder…

    Also, I have a couple of vets that I work with on a consistent basis and they tell stories of being spit upon and called “baby killers” following their return from Vietnam. I found it interesting to see the term glorified in fiction. It tends to give a naive depth to the characters that most may not understand.

    I meant to ask you if you read the book “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. If not it is well worth the time. I believe it would suit your style.

  • May 10, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    Perhaps it’s my pragmatic side, but I’m still a little surprised by the ending. I think I’m just not certain I know what I think of it.

Comments are closed.