2 May 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 1
One Thousand Years
The ghost of my sister's foster child threw a rock and, seeing the trajectory, I leaped in front of it yelling NO and I meant to catch it but it hit me in the middle of my forehead. In the forty-below cold my skin was as tight and thin as a thousand-year-old drum and it burst open, spraying blood on her. But, of course, it went right through and landed on the gray snow behind her.
The blood froze to my head and on my cheek and in my beard, and I didn't bother wiping it away because the frozen stuff was preventing more bleeding, and ghosts don't care how you look.
We were at the edge of Mission pond, half a mile from the remote cabin we shared, no phone, no electricity, no sister's falcon stare, just plenty of wood for burning and woods for walking and books which used to be wood, and the ghost who loved me and followed me against my wishes.
—Gieldan, if you ghost the planet for a thousand years you'll never see this again and I'll never ever see it again so don't wreck it okay?
I meant the pond, dead silent and eerily, terribly unfrozen below us. The cold had come in a calm so complete not a molecule of water had moved, and not a leaf had fallen from a tree, not a bug nor animal nor drop of snow or rain had moved the water. Water needs movement in order to change. The same way you can microwave water far beyond boiling and it will sit unboiled until you touch it with a spoon and it explodes, that same way water can sometimes freeze unfrozen, and stay that way, on the edge of ice until something touches it. I saw the rock heading toward the pond and so I stopped it before this strange and wonderful and awesome thing was ruined unnaturally.
I came to not quite the edge of the pond and placed my little hunter hot seat on a rock and sat on it. I lit a cigarette and eased into myself to watch. Sooner, or maybe later, something would touch the pond and when that happened it would turn to ice in one gigantic and awesome and instantaneous event. The smoke hung thick around me in the cold. Gieldan wrapped herself in the smoke and got thicker than normal and huddled beside me to wait.
—I don't blame you, she said.
I had gone to visit my sister for thanksgiving dinner and there was Gieldan, seventeen and braless and so flirty it was awkward, weird.
Sis said, She has tried to kill herself seven times. She relates to men that way. I love her, my sister said grinning at me, she reminds me of myself at that age.
—Her speech is so flirty girly.
—She's probably never had a conversation; just sex.
I said, I see, and I nodded my head and pretended to be thoughtful but really I was plotting how to avoid her, her neediness so cloying and desperate and innocent that even her walking across the floor was pornographic.
After dinner, my niece, seven-year-old Suzy, full of life, came bouncing into the living room rolling her giant red ball. She likes to have me hold her hands and hold the ball with my feet, and she uses it like a trampoline. Of course I said yes because how can you say no, but I did it full of shame, red-faced and sweaty-palmed thinking to her, this boner in my pants isn't for you, it isn't it isn't. It wasn't. It was for Gieldan who had passed me a beer and lingered her fingers on my hand and then put her finger in her mouth and sucked it like she was sucking me.
It was so utterly naive, like how a little girl might think porno looks like, having never witnessed it but only the references on the TV of how a porn star girl looks at you. She sucks cock but can't talk, I thought. And the rhyme made me giggle in a way that I hated. And thinking it I got hard, and hard, I played with my niece, who thank god never knew.
Any tiny breeze would send a ripple across the water and that would be enough. I turned my head sideways and blew smoke away from the pond but also to fill up Gieldan's ghost a little more. Her red hair had disappeared in the grayness of the other-life. There are unmoving things like rocks and they are static; it's normal that they are that way and we expect it. But when water sits utterly unmoving, every glance is like a glance into hell. It is a force malevolent. Regarding such a thing is to look into the face of god and know you are about to explode.
The air was so thin and still that I heard a deer crunching toward us in the crusty snow from at least a half-mile away. Every step sounded like tearing paper. I was struck with a premonition, but was helpless to act. I think I was sleeping and maybe dreaming and so I was sleep paralyzed, or I don't know, something, but I did not move and the not moving was something, like the pond unfreezing was something, how often the un- of something is as significant as the thing itself. Gieldan touched her hands to her lips, silencing and bracing herself.
On thanksgiving night, overstuffed and headed toward drunk, sitting around the TV with my sister and her husband Tony and our parents and somehow Gieldan beside me on the couch, squeezed next to me by Tony's fat brother, the power went out. It was totally black. No one talked so it was unnoisy instead of silent, the big un like unresistant which my hand was as Gieldan grabbed my hand and dragged it up under her shirt and placed it on her breast, which was as round and firm and as perfect as I remembered teenage breasts from when I had a right to touch them
The lights blinked on and I pulled it away for fear of being caught instead of because it was the right thing to do, which I would have done if there was time. How will I stop this? I thought. What can I do?
I'm a coward sometimes. Like how the pond was about to leap into winter and I sat, sat and watched the deer come down, and my hunter's eyes told me it was a young buck, maybe one-forty field dressed with his antlers not yet fallen off. Our science eyes told us we were about to witness a miracle and we watched, horrified, as the deer placed both front legs into the pond and stretched its neck downward for a drink.
It sounded like two jet planes taking off at once, like the snarl of an arena rock guitar, speakers maxed out crunching through your bones, like dread. The unfroze pond was glazed with ice in an instant, like lightning, like pure magic. The deer, caught one front leg deep and the other shallow, held fast in the ice trap.
—What will happen?
—It will die, I said, maybe coyotes or maybe me, or maybe hunger.
—Venison, I shrugged.
That night I laid on the couch, my assigned sleeping quarters in the full house, blankets around my neck, child fearful, knowing what was coming and not knowing what to do about it. Gieldan drifted toward me in a soft pink flannel nightgown. She kneeled in front of me.
—Are you awake?
—You shouldn't be here. Go to bed. But my voice was too soft, too gentle to be taken seriously.
Gieldan slipped her nightgown over her head and tried to climb under the blankets with me. Her skin was as hot as illness, her tiny movements desperate and insistent and softly unyielding. I closed my eyes and tried not to cry. I felt like screaming, but didn't know what to scream and if we were discovered I knew I would be blamed. I was the man, the older man and was supposed to have power here. I pushed her back, but was aroused doubly by the feel of her soft tight skin.
—You have to go.
—I've seen your looks.
And she was right. I did look. I did want. I heard the voice of my sister—she's been abused her whole life—and I pushed Gieldan away.
—You are too young.
—You aren't the first, she said, kneeing naked in front of me, you can't damage me because I'm already broken.
This was the second time she was right and I was wrong.
—You little slut. Get dressed. Get out of here.
I was just desperate is all, desperate, no help, floundering, drowning and I grabbed the cruelty stick to save myself.
—You whore. Get the fuck away from me.
Gieldan grabbed her nightgown from the floor and sobbed once before running upstairs.
—I'll try to save it, I said. I looked into the ice. It was at least a foot thick. I walked across it toward the deer. The deer saw me and started to panic, shocking its body back and forth trying to jolt itself free. Gieldan, if its legs break I'll have to kill it. Hold its head for me.
At my belt was a hatchet-knife-survival combo thing Suzy had given me for Christmas when she learned I was going to the cabin for the rest of the winter. The folding knife was in the handle. The head was hatchet on one side and hammer on the other. I wore it every day, even when I might not need it. When I unwrapped it, only a week after the funeral, I burst into tears. Suzy hugged her arms around my neck and held me tightly, almost choking.
The deer tried to bite me, but Gieldan held its head and stroked it and whispered soothing things. I started work on the deepest leg first, fearing that the one I freed first would kick me. I chopped at the ice. My wool trousers clung to the ice like Velcro. The water vapor from the deer's breath clung to the back of my exposed neck, causing me to shiver even harder in the brutal cold.
—Thank you, said Gieldan.
About the twentieth swing, my hatchet caught the edge of the hole and skittered sideways, neatly slicing through my mitten and cutting off an inch of my ring finger. It flopped into the hole and turned to crystal as I stared. I threw it from the hole and stuck mitten into the stump of my finger in order to catch the blood and kept working.
—Jonah, she said. Dearest Jonah.
The pain was as sharp as broken glass, but it wasn't loud or overwhelming. It just was. I chopped away at the ice making good progress.
At the house, I was beside myself, panicked. I leapt away from the couch arms raised as if it was the couch doing the assaulting and I backed away. My cigarettes were on a TV tray next to the recliner. I grabbed them and ran to the back door. I slid the glass and stepped through and slid it shut behind me. I was shaking and red and so very tempted to sneak upstairs that I took my pants down and masturbated onto the grass. At the release I moaned and threw my head back and heard a noise on the shed roof. I looked over and saw Gieldan smoking on top of the roof. She must have snuck out her window. Her eyes wide, mouth open, accusing, betrayed. She knew on her own terms that I lied, that I did want her, the physical proof of it glistening in the dewy lawn. I saw tears come to her and I couldn't stand it. I went around front to smoke.
With one leg almost free, and the hole turning redder all the time, I turned my attention to the other leg. Gieldan's ghost arms must have been tiring because the deer's head lowered until we were touching cheeks, tear ducts almost lined up. I could almost feel the hollow channel under his fur, warm and delicate and intimate. Its whiskers tickled my neck, its breath like cold rain.
The sound of my grunts and chops was the only sound. Nothing else moved. Each chop rang through the brittle air like the destruction of a church bell.
In the morning, Gieldan was dead on the roof, twin channels of blood from her wrists down the tar shingles and into the gutter and down the spout and painted the gravel sickly clotted red. My sister discovered her first, and me second as I ran from the couch to answer her screams. I had been awake and full of self-pity all night when I heard my sister walk out back and scream.
As I regarded Gieldan, dead, her posture and expression so profoundly sad, my knees could not support me. I sank to the lawn sobbing.
—What did you do? said my sister, swinging at me, hitting me with open hands all over me on my head and shoulders and neck and across my face, bright slaps—what did you do?!
I let her hit me. I accepted each blow and didn't answer until she was sobbing beside me in the grass
—I turned her away.
My sister cried harder. I do not know if she cried harder because she believed me or because she didn't.
I hold the leg with one hand, blood from my stump oozing on the dark brown fur, and I swung down, chopping the last bit holding it in place. One free. I raised my arms to protect my face from the kick but none comes. I picked up the leg and set it on the ice and I freed the other leg. The deer sensed its freedom and kicked up and out, then staggered away as if the legs had fallen asleep in their long immobility. Perhaps they had. I was happy to see it free.
—If only I had rescued you.
—I was already broken.
—If I had slept with you, you would be alive today. I hurl this at her all the time. Because it is true, she cannot argue.
—I would be alive if I had not killed myself. She hurls this at me all the time and it is true as well. We live at the impasse.
—Let's go home and clean you up.
About the author:
David Bulley's first novel, Weapon in Heaven, is forthcoming from Cavern Press. He has published short fiction in Night Rain, Heat City Review, Porcupine, McSweeney's, and in many other fine magazines.