Those two rustling words reverberated through Hemmie’s her dream, halting the cane leaves whipping in the wind over her and Nenah’s heads. She opened her eyes, shot up to sitting, and looked around the room. It was dark and empty. She fell back onto the mattress, threw a pillow over her face, and closed her eyes again. Nenah was there, her dress sticky with sweat and her hand outstretched. Hemmie willed herself to feel Nenah’s touch again, but she could not reinsert herself into the tangle of Nenah’s arms.
As Hemmie was working to untangle her legs from the bed sheets, a cramp seized her calf. She gritted her teeth and pounded her leg with her fists. Where it should have been deformed and tattered, her leg was magically smooth. She did not deny that the leg was a miracle, but she hated to touch it. This flesh was not her flesh. What had been gnawed into uselessness by the dogs had been replaced by the woman in the swamp, but Hemmie did not trust it. And it was almost always screeching with pain.
Hemmie shoved her bonnet off her head and scrambled to the edge of her bed. She parted the mosquito netting and reached for the glass carafe on her nightstand. The rustling of the two words—come here—echoed in her mind again. She threw her head back and pressed the carafe to her lips, guzzling until her chest was warmed and she could cram no more liquid down her throat.
Hemmie stared out the window at the silhouettes of the trees in the fruit grove. She did not need light to know that every branch of every tree in the grove was empty. The plants she had so delighted in when she first woke in this magical place had become barren as she ate through the misbeliefs and cumquats that had flowered there. Her stomach growled and she was taken, whip-fast, back to the bowels of the ship. The all-consuming wasting hunger was but one of the terrors she had survived. She would forever live with the sores where the shackles had bit into her wrists and ankles and left a ghost of scarring. The gnawing itch of always being moist with feces and urine. The caking of blood and vomit. The nearness of death. The howling of those losing their sanity, their holiness, their breath.
Hemmie leaned over the bed and shoved her hand beneath the mattress. She clutched the hilt of the knife she slept on every night and withdrew it. She laid the blade flat against her chest, its weight satisfying and solid in her palm.
“I am coming to you,” she whispered to her parents in her mother tongue.
Lightning-quick, she flipped the hilt outward, pointing the blade at her belly. She tightened her grip and thrust the knife inward, but her arms seized. The hilt burned her fingers as if aflame. She dropped the knife and those two words rustled in her mind.
Hemmie clapped her hands over her ears and climbed to her feet. She rushed down the hall, through the kitchen, into the living room. Her body crossing into the foyer signaled the sun to rise. She wrenched her front door open and paused to feel the dawning light in her skin. As she crossed the threshold, the house began shifting its wooden planks. Loud clacking sounds exploded as the back of the house collapsed, the walls and floorboards separating from their joints and stacking themselves in a neat pile like a folded fan. By the time Hemmie had stepped onto the dirt clearing outside her front door, all her rooms and hallways had ceded their structure, creaking loudly as they deconstructed from a dwelling into an unassuming armoire.
While Hemmie thought of her parents every morning when she woke, each time she left her house she thought of the woman made of light. This place was made of the womaan’s magic, and the incessant rustling of her voice told Hemmie that there would be a price to pay for her salvation. Hemmie’s little patch of paradise was centered around a haphazard jumble of chiffarobes, dressers, vanities, and etargés yanked straight from childhood memory. Hemmie hustled over to a pale yellow cupboard and grasped its little glass knobs. When its speckled paint, stayed put rather than swim before her eyes, she tugged the cupboard open and grabbed a bottle at random from the collection of alcohol stashed within. She drank, squinting at the sun as the burn of alcohol spread from her throat to her chest. It would take at least a bottle to deaden the memories that plagued her.
She scowled when the alcohol failed to quell the woman’s rustling. Her breath caught in her throat as she felt a fierce and insistent force tugging on her navel. She tried to return to her bottle, but the tugging jerked her backward and the bottle slipped from her hand and shattered in the dirt. The tugging dragged her away from her jumble of furniture, across an open field, and into her barren fruit grove. The grass beneath her feet, gently rose and fell, rolling with each footfall. She ducked beneath the branches of trees stripped of fruit and hopped over a clean stream empty of fish. It no longer mattered that nothing in her lush domain rotted or died, because now she knew that nothing could blossom or grow here either. Even so neutered, her one-woman country was still a perfect oasis, a permanent safe place where she could lick her wounds until death finally came for her.
“Stop,” the voice rustled.
Hemmie found herself standing under the boughs of a broad oak tree. She stopped and pressed her ear against the tree’s gnarled bark, but the tree was silent.
“Dig,” the voice rustled, and she felt herself dragged down to her knees. The roughness of the dirt pushed against her palms. She tried to force herself back up to standing, but her body resisted. Even her bones seemed to be straining toward the dirt. She relented and laid flat on her belly.
“Dig,” the voice rustled again.
Hemmie watched helplessly as her plump, dark fingers plunged into the dirt. Once in the dirt, her hand was still, as if whatever force had been controlling her had run out of power. She plunged her fist downward, pushing deeper and deeper. Suddenly, her fingers touched air. She yanked her hand back in surprise and squinted through the hole but there wasn’t much to see. The tugging sensation wrapped around both wrists and guided her hands toward the whole she had dug. With both hands shoved into the opening, the force manipulating her used her forearms to spread the hole into a yawning gap. She heard a tiny pop, then a swarm of mosquitos flew into her face. She swiped at her face with her shoulder and instantly recoiled.
She wanted to plug the hole up, but curiosity urged her to take a closer look. When her head was hanging over the hole, a briny blast of swamp air smacked against her skin. She was shocked to discover that, all this time, her undulating patch of land was floating above the spread of swamp where the woman had found her. From twelve feet above, she could hear owls rustling their feathers in preparation for night hunting and the rustling of Spanish moss as the wind whipping through the treetops. The croaking of the frogs, the swelling of birdcalls, it all mingled and swirled upward, reaching toward Hemmie in a cacophony of sound.
She took a deep breath, laid her head on her forearms, and lazily watched the movement of the swamp below. Watching the dull gleam of a water moccasin displace floating duckweed as it cut through murky waters lulled her into relaxation. It was not long before a burst of light exploded just past the stretch of swamp she could comfortably see. She leaned further into the opening and. As she was straining to look downward, the flash of light became a tiny whirling tornado. In a flash, the light took to the sky, flying straight at Hemmie. She scrambled backward, but the light rose through the hole and slammed into her forehead. She heard the woman’s rustling collect into a cackling.
“You can’t hide any longer,” the woman rustled in Hemmie’s mind.
Hemmie threw herself onto her back, her eyes darting around as she waited for whatever terrors the whirling tornado had in store for her.
“Do you feel that?” the woman rustled.
At first, Hemmie felt nothing, then an intense headache to erupted, sending a searing pain shooting straight down the middle of her head. Hemmie pressed her palm against her forehead.
“This pain will stay with you,” the woman rustled, “until you bring yourself to me.”
She flipped over and hurriedly piled the dirt back into the hole, pounding at the earth to pack it tight. The woman’s warning whispering in her ears, Hemmie ran back to her menagerie of furniture. She guzzled more alcohol and paused to see if the pain would fade. But even as her vision went blurry with the drink, the pain continued to flit from her forehead down into her sinuses and outward toward her ears.
© 2016, Published in When the World Wounds