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The Hired Boy
There are no basements in that part of Mississippi, so the sisters argue at night in the third floor guest room. They sip cola from green glass bottles and Gretta decides how she will kill Eli’s yellow dog.
“With poison,” Gretta says. She sits on the floor at Ruth’s feet. Her nightgown, too large, puddles around her on the carpet.
“What else?” Ruth says.
“It’s in the barn.”
“I won’t help,” Ruth says. “You don’t know Eli.”
“I told you what he said.” Gretta balls her fists, as if angry, but she does not think of Eli’s taunts or of the curl of his mouth as he said those things about her mother. She thinks, instead, of his pale hair that flops over one eye, of his clumsy legs, his too-large hands. She warned him. He wouldn’t take it back, so she told him what she would do to his yellow barking dog. He’ll try to stop them somehow. She imagines a chase, a confrontation in the woods behind his house.
“I’m not afraid of Eli,” Gretta says. She swallows the last of her cola. She gathers up the hem of her gown and twists it into a knot to keep it from the mud. The gown is sleeveless, so she pulls a sweater over her head and stands, arms out, while Ruth smoothes the sweater over her shoulders and chest.
“We should wear pants,” Ruth says.
“This is better.” Gretta tosses Ruth a shawl. Ruth’s arms, as she stretches them out, are long, already well-shaped. Ruth is fourteen, only two years older, but different than Gretta, like their mother.
“Eli loves that dog,” Ruth says.
“That dog’s not right anyway.” Gretta had hit Eli, had smacked him in his big, soft mouth for what he said. He caught her by the wrist when she did it, held her hand there at his mouth and wiped a bit of blood across her palm. Then he flung her hand away, said, “I’ve seen you follow her. I’ve seen a lot. More than you maybe.” And it was not slander after all, because what he said about her mother was true.
Gretta knows her mother. She follows her mother in the afternoons and on Saturdays, late at night, sometimes in the early morning. Gretta learns things about her mother that Ruth does not, and it was only weeks ago that Gretta first discovered her mother dancing among the hay and the sawdust for Eli, who squatted in the stall and watched.
There were other times, times before that should have tipped her off–her mother bareback on her horse, Eli behind with his arms wrapped around her waist. And when her mother had taught him well, she let Eli sit in front on the horse, and she squeezed up behind him, her breasts pressing into his back, her mouth snapping into his ear to use the reigns and lean to the left, to pull back and to tap his heels into the horse. Her mother never looked like that before, all tight and young, her face plump with smiling.
“You’re not going to kill it really,” Ruth says.
“I’ll go alone.”
“I’m going if you are.”
Gretta slips her hand into Ruth’s. A smooth hand, something nice to touch and Gretta holds it tight all the way down the three flights of stairs. It is late already, past midnight, and the house is quiet as she leads Ruth into the kitchen. Here, they find cubes of sugar to sweeten the poison.
Gretta folds the sugar into a square of cheese cloth. “Arsenic has no taste,” she says.
“You don’t know,” Ruth says.
Outside, they walk along a narrow, grassy path that leads to the stables. It is early spring, the bugs already out and loud in the black. The trees in Mississippi grow wherever they can, grow tall with limbs crammed together, overlapping, and making it darker outside than it should be. Gretta and Ruth speak little as they walk. Gretta works at moving slowly, at conquering the urge to run all the way to the stables to beat Ruth and her long legs. She begins to skip, then to prance and to swing Ruth’s arm up and down. Ruth pulls her to a halt on the path, turns and faces her.
“Quit it, Gretta,” Ruth says. “You’ll wake up the dogs. You don’t know how to sneak. You run and trample things.”
“Don’t say that,” Gretta says. “You spoil everything.”
They reach the stables and pass rows of stalls, some empty but many with horses, sleeping or shuffling to their windows to sniff at the intruders. Sometimes, the stable is full of horses, and their mother will hire an extra boy to help water and feed the animals, to comb their manes and clean their hooves. Eli was hired this way, as an extra, the boy next door who would only help out on weekends. But he turned into a hard worker and her mother keeps him now, the only permanent. It is the others who come and go, teenaged boys with skinny chests, with close-clipped hair, their legs fast and bruised and awkward. Gretta has watched them for years from the roof of the house, from the windows or the tall barn doors. She remembers how she felt once—a child of eight, nine, ten even and they were foreign to her, creatures worshipped in some distant time.
“He’ll wake up,” says Ruth. “Eli is a light sleeper.”
Gretta drops Ruth’s hand. “That’s a guess.” She peers hard at the long corridor that extends in front of them, illuminated only by tiny bulbs that dangle from the overhead beams. The place is cloudy, a haze of dust, of horse hair and shadow. Gretta sometimes spends hours here, watching her mother. It is something she has done since she can remember, since before there were any stable boys at all and only her mother and Ruth and herself to take care of the horses. But there were not as many horses then, and her mother opened the barn to boarders and then it all started booming. It was too much for her mother alone, and there was no father. There has never been a father, but only “that man,” a blurred image in Gretta’s mind, of something tall, something heavy and mute. So her mother hired the boys and a gardener and groundskeeper, and Gretta and Ruth were no longer needed out there, in the barn, at all.
But Gretta continues to go, every day at all hours to watch openly her mother, lifting the solid white blocks of salt, fastening them neatly into place for each horse. The deep throb of her voice, singing as she moves from stall to stall, blends with the hum of the refrigerator in the office, the low buzz of a mower far off in the pastures. And sometimes Gretta will tuck herself behind large squares of hay and sit very still and quiet, and she is sure that her mother never knows that she is there. From here, she watches as her mother prances the length of the corridor, her boots clomping and kicking up a dust that smells of sweet hay and manure. She watches as her mother sits on a stool and brushes her horses, her sleeves pushed up above the elbows to show off her tanned arms and her tiny wrists that somehow, impossibly, support her enormous hands–larger, even, than the hands of some men. Ruth will look just like her. Everyone says it.
“This way,” Gretta says, leading Ruth down the corridor.
“I know which way. Don’t show me which way.”
The store room is at the back of the barn, behind a stack of empty buckets. Gretta yanks the handle until the door flies open and sends buckets rolling into a corner. Inside, they study the rows of shelves stacked with old leashes and dog collars, sticky shampoos and blankets and a couple of big metal tubs. There are poisons here too, scattered about in random fashion, flea bath and a dip for ticks, a bar of soap for lice, and behind that, a brown glass bottle with a sticker, “For Rats.”
“For dogs,” Gretta says.
Ruth holds her shawl close and glares down at Gretta. “This is serious, Gretta.”
“It’s not full,” Gretta says, shaking it.
“How much will you need?”
“Less than if it was a person.”
“You’ve never done this to a person,” Ruth says.
“Neither have you.”
Eli’s house is not far and they can get there without going out to the road, though they must cross some woods, two fences, and a swamp.
“The road is faster,” Ruth says.
“Do you want someone to see us?”
“No one’s out here,” Ruth says. “Ever.”
But Gretta ignores her and leads them over the fences and to the swamp that is not really a swamp, but a low patch of ground, flooded from the many rains. The water soaks Gretta’s feet through her sandals. Ruth is wearing boots beneath her robe and is dry, except for the hem of her gown, which falls into the mud.
“We should have worn pants,” Ruth says.
They wade on. They kick up weeds and mud; they disturb a group of dragon flies, send them whirling and snapping in Gretta’s ears. She sweats beneath her gown. There’s a smell out here, the stench of the swamp, mildew and rot. And something else, something pungent and feverish, something familiar that she can’t place. “What is that?” she says.
“Listen,” Ruth says. From somewhere ahead comes a faint, choppy bark—three short yaps, a pause, three more. Gretta knows the sound at once, has heard it over and over again. Eli brings the dog every day to work and chains him up in an empty stall. Gretta often crouches there, the ugly thing panting next to her, while she peeks over doors and through cracks at her mother, and at Eli. It was from there that she watched her mother dance for him. Gretta had a clear view that day, her mother in the stall across the corridor, her arms over her head, waving and reaching up and up. Her blouse had come un-tucked and it blew up from her bare stomach while she sang and spun. Her hair, too, had fallen from its bun to fly out around her and she seemed to fill the whole stall with her whirling, with her quiet, smooth voice. But there was room for one other, because Eli sat inside the stall and watched. Her mother whipped her head around to him each time she spun. She did not touch him at all until she had finished her dance, when she brushed herself off, handed him a shovel and then patted his hair, saying, “Let’s get back to work, hear?” And Ruth knows nothing of this. Gretta has never told her.
“He’s awake.” Ruth splashes behind her and Gretta turns to see her sister picking her legs up high, like a march, the bottom of her robe bunched in her arms. “I told you.”
“Hush, Ruth,” Gretta says. “He’ll hear.” She spins around, plunges through the muck and falls, her gown billowing as she hits the water.
“What are you doing?” Ruth says.
The water is stagnant, warm, thick with insects and plants, their bloated stems breaking a thin layer of scum at the surface. Something hard pokes Gretta’s ribs and she pulls the bottle of poison from her sweater, waves it at Ruth. “We’ll find him,” she says.
“You’re a mess,” Ruth says. “Get up. I’m getting Mother.”
“Then I’m going back to the barn.”
“Go. You won’t.”
“Shut up, Gretta. Don’t pretend to know.” Ruth holds the bottom of her gown high in her arms, her white legs swallowed in the gaping mouths of the boots. The boots were once their mother’s and are too large for Ruth, but much larger on Gretta, who sneaks often into Ruth’s closet to try her skirts, her high-heels and her slips.
“I’ll sink right into this water,” Gretta says. “Don’t think I won’t.” Eli is coming. He is closing in on them, she feels sure. She knows about him, knows he doesn’t sleep but comes out at night. She has followed him and her mother often since the day her mother danced out in the barn. At school, she sits and thinks about the two of them, about what they will do that afternoon, or that evening when she and Ruth have gone up to bed. She sprawls on her sheets at night and wonders if they are out there, dancing under the trees or beneath the dark roof of the barn. It began this way, with wondering, until Gretta could no longer stand it, and one night she slipped her feet into rubber boots and left the house to search for them. She didn’t have to go far. At the barn, they held one another, Eli’s arms squeezed up against her mother’s back. He is much taller than her mother and loomed over her so that when she spoke, her words were muffled against his chest. His big hands fumbled at her hair, her shoulders, dropped down to her hips. Gretta didn’t sleep at all that night. She played it over in her mind, their mouths that opened and slobbered and made Gretta tight all over, made her skin sting and snap like static beneath the sheets.
“He won’t get away with it,” she says. “I warned him. I told him what I’d do to his ugly dog.” She made the promise after hitting him. “You go on and try,” he said. Something has happened lately and the meetings between her mother and Eli have become infrequent, no longer every night or even every other night. Gretta tried to shout at him that she knew the reason, that she had known all along. But this was a lie and as she watched his skinny back, bare and freckled and gleaming as he bent over a tangled ball of barbed wire in the grass, she understood that he would know it.
“You don’t care about killing that dog,” Ruth says. “That’s not it.”
Gretta pulls her legs up quickly and stands. The water pours from her gown. Her mouth is open, sour swamp air sticking to her tongue, and just beyond the trees comes the tinkling of the dog’s chain, the rustle of Eli’s big feet and his heavy arms slapping at branches. The white of his shirt floats out at them, and for a moment he is all there, a tall thin figure coming out of shadow. But gone again, just as quickly, a blur of white weaving through the trees.
“Come on.” Gretta waves to Ruth, who hangs back. “Come on, Ruth.” And they follow him. They pick their way through the weeds, the rotted trunks of trees. They leave the swamp behind and sink into the woods. Eli, a white snatch of his shirt through the leaves, a gleam of his pale head, leading them on.
“He’s taking us home,” Ruth says, and she is right. There, just ahead, is the first fence. Soon, the second and they leave the woods behind, cross into their own yard, and the whole of him is visible now. The whole of them as well, and when they have reached the barn, when they have come full circle, he spins around and confronts them.
“Both of you,” he says. A baseball cap covers his pale hair and hides his eyes. Gretta can’t tell if his words are directed at her or at Ruth. Ruth answers first.
“Of course,” she says.
“Your mother will kill you.”
“You won’t tell,” Ruth says. She moves toward him, close enough now to touch him. He takes his cap off, begins to fan himself. There is a pink groove that runs across his forehead, where the cap has pressed against his skin. Gretta wonders if she could feel the indention, if she were to run her finger across his slick, pale brow.
“How do you know if I’ll tell?” Eli says.
“You never have,” Ruth says. They’re staring at one another, Eli and Ruth. They’re the same age and both in their first year of high school. But Gretta has never seen them talk much, here at home. Not till now, and Gretta begins to itch beneath her sweater and gown. She is hot, imprisoned, the damp fabric clinging to her skin, and she tucks the bottle of arsenic between her knees, yanks the sweater over her head and tosses it into the grass. The dog tries to chase after it, but Eli holds tight to the chain and the dog stops short, its front legs pawing at air.
“Your sister,” Eli says to Ruth, “wants to kill me.” He slouches against the side of the barn and folds his arms low on his chest.
“Yes,” Ruth says.
“Do you know why?”
“What do you think?”
“I think,” Ruth says, “that you should probably not say things about Mother to Gretta.” She glances back at Gretta. “She doesn’t understand you don’t mean it.”
“He means it. He means everything.” Gretta smacks her palm with the heavy, glass bottle for emphasis.
“Tell your sister she could snap a bone,” Eli says to Ruth.
“She knows,” Ruth says.
“Tell him,” Gretta says, “that he’s nothing. I know what he’ll become, like all the others with their fat, old dogs and dirty, bare feet. Ugly, hairy old men, too fat for their little shacks.”
Eli pushes away from the barn, takes several steps toward Gretta. “Tell her that her mother’s a whore.”
Gretta holds the bottle of poison high in her hand. She says to Eli, “I’ve told my mother what you said. She never wants to see you again.”
“What’s that in your hand?”
“Dog water,” Gretta says. “Come get it.” She clicks her tongue, like her mother does to call the horses.
But Eli is not paying attention. He is looking above Gretta’s head, down the path that leads to the house. Gretta turns and there’s a glow of light in the living room window.
“I’ll go tell her right now,” Gretta says. “I’ll tell her what you called her. Just see what she thinks.” And without waiting for him to respond, she takes off down the path toward the house, her wet gown slapping against her shins and the night air blowing cool against her burning face.
Several yards from the house, behind the fat trunk of an oak, she stops to stare at the dark shape of her mother, silhouetted in the square of light. From this distance, her mother is a blur, a smudge on the glass, a dark fingerprint. Ruth comes running up the path, Eli and his dog just behind. They duck behind the oak tree beside her. There’s not much room, with three of them and the dog, and they cram close together, the dog crouched in front of them, panting, its big pink tongue lolling out of its mouth. Gretta wrinkles her nose at it and shimmies away, half-way out of the shadow of the tree. The moonlight glows off one pale arm, glows off of her slender wrist and her long fingers wrapped tight round the neck of the bottle.
“She’ll see us,” Ruth whispers.
“She can’t see us,” Gretta says. “There’s a glare on the glass.”
“You don’t know,” Ruth says. Then, “What’s she doing?”
“She doesn’t sleep much,” Gretta says. “Does she, Eli?”
Eli does not answer. He twists his cap around so that the bill faces the back and his eyes are round, wet, bright with the reflection of the yellow light in her mother’s window. But he is looking at Ruth, who stands with her back against the trunk of the tree. Ruth, a miniature of the woman above, her hair swept over one shoulder so that the curve of her cheek, the length of her neck are exposed.
“Just think, Ruth.” Gretta touches her shoulder. “Eli’s seen Mother’s naked bosom.”
Gretta can feel the shock of this; Ruth’s shoulder jerks, throwing Gretta’s hand away.
“He’s seen more than that,” Gretta continues. “Probably all of her.” As she says it, Gretta imagines the dark and pale shape of her mother, the lovely outline of her body beneath her gown. What Eli must feel, working close to a woman like that, Gretta could also feel, had always felt. As a child, she loved to kiss her mother’s mouth. She would stare at her mother, would lie on her back beneath her mother’s window, and she would imagine her mother as a girl no older than herself, with hair braided down her back, with skinny arms and long legs, like Ruth’s.
“What’s she talking about?” Ruth says to Eli.
“Your sister invents things.”
“Believe him if you want,” Gretta says. “You will. You let him call her a whore.”
“You didn’t defend her. You took his side.”
“I don’t know.” Ruth turns to Eli. “How could you see her naked?”
“Don’t be blind, Ruth,” Gretta says.
“I never saw anything.” His eyes are on Ruth while he speaks, on her face, brightened with a sudden flush, on her fingers that play over the fabric of her gown.
“They wouldn’t do that,” Ruth says to Gretta. “Mother wouldn’t.”
“You don’t know about Mother,” Gretta says. “Or Eli.” But Gretta knows little herself what is between her mother and her hired boy. She knows only that they touch one another, that they build up a rhythm and then change it, slow it down or add an extra beat, a quick thud, thud, or a tinkle of breaking glass when they once slammed into the storeroom and broke three of the spare light bulbs. She knows, too, that they no longer need one another, or that Eli no longer needs her mother. And now she knows why.
“What do you think she’s doing, Ruth?” Gretta pushes between them and squeezes Ruth’s arm. “She’s waiting. She’s waiting for Eli to come out and give her a signal.”
Ruth believes her; Gretta knows from the pinched face, the half-open mouth, that something has clicked, that Ruth has perhaps suspected this. And so Gretta says, “You know it’s true, Ruth. He’s mother’s play thing. And now she’s got tired of him. So it’s your turn.”
Eli’s arm snaps out; his fingers twist around a fistful of Gretta’s hair. “You’re a stupid little girl,” he hisses, right in her face. “A stupid little girl who can’t mind her own business!” His other hand grabs her shoulder and he shakes her so hard the bottle of arsenic nearly slips from her fingers. “And I know why,” he says. “I know why.”
“You don’t know anything.” Gretta is frozen beneath his hands, so hot and heavy against the bare skin of her shoulders.
“I know why,” Eli says. “Cause you’re just like her.” His voice cracks as he says this, and he steps back, releasing her. “Why can’t you just let me alone?” There’s a look to him that Gretta has never seen—his mouth bunched up tight, almost gone, his whole face crumpling. He ducks his head, hides his eyes with his hands.
“Are you crying?” Ruth says.
He hunches over, shoulders lurching and a sound, high and startled as the whinny of a horse, coming out of him. Before she thinks what she’s doing, Gretta throws her arms around his neck. She pulls him tight to her body, presses her face into his shoulder long enough to smell him, the sweet smell of oats and hay and something else—something familiar—and then he shoves her away.
“Let me alone.” He chokes over the words, wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Why are you crying?” Ruth says. The sharp edge to her tone makes Gretta snap her head around to look at her, and the expression on Ruth’s face—the upper lip just barely curled, the upturned nose, nostrils twitching—it’s like her mother, the face her mother makes when the barn cats give birth to dead kittens, when she cleans the sore of an injured horse, or when she steps in something nasty and scrapes her boot against the edge of the porch steps. Yes, the face is her mother’s, the same she would make when Gretta wet her bed as a child, when she got sick and threw up on the floor. Taunting and cruel, and it made her mother ugly, made the wrinkles show around her eyes; it made Gretta want to cower, to hide, to run off into the woods and she would imagine her mother’s reaction, how surprised she would be when she realized that Gretta was gone, that she was never coming back.
“Let me alone,” Eli says, into his hands. “Let me alone.”
From just outside the living room window, Gretta gazes at the bright image of her mother. Her hair curls wildly around the pale circle of her face and she stands, one arm stretched over her head. The sleeve of her gown has fallen down to reveal the length of her slender arm, and Gretta is suddenly conscious that her own gown is a horror, a ruined, filthy thing that hangs from her arms in damp folds.
She is close enough to reach out and touch the glass, and still, her mother does not see her. She is looking above Gretta, beyond, out into the dark. Her dark eyes are half-closed, her head cocked to one side as if she’s deep in thought, as is she’s dreaming of something, and in one swift motion, Gretta pulls her arm back and throws the bottle of poison right at her mother’s face. The window shatters, glass flying, and Gretta flinches back. The sound—her own rapid breathing, the quick thudding of her heart, the echo of breaking glass—cuts through the slow croon of the locusts and crickets, the soft whine of a horse out in the barn. It follows Gretta, a hollow roaring, as she runs down the path; it drowns out Ruth, who is yelling something as Gretta passes. It flies with her, this noise, and she runs past the slouched figure of Eli by the oak, past his yellow barking dog, past the barn and off into the trees.
She hauls herself over the first fence and swats at whipping branches and the sharp, biting pine needles. She keeps going and when she reaches the swamp, she plunges into the water. Her wet gown sticks to her thighs; the water splashes up, into her face, and again the smell is there, hot and feral, and this time she recognizes it. It’s like the smell of the women in town, the ones who lounge on front porches, who eat cherries from paper sacks and pucker their lips to spit the pits far into yards. Gretta has seen them, waving their fat, freckled arms as they call to passers-by, to her mother and to Ruth, and behind, to Gretta. Always, they are there, rubbing their plump thighs with their palms, their breasts bobbing in their tank tops, their mouths stained a bright red, swollen with fruit.
Katherine Conner’s stories have appeared in the Press 53 anthology Surreal South, The Chattahoochee Review, issue 55 of The Portland Review, and are forthcoming in issue 56 of The Portland Review. She recently graduated with her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University.