Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays! On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it. TGIFF! –Francesca
By Misty Urban
The wooden sign said Cabin Rentals. The letters had endured scorching heat, thunderous rainstorms, insect swarms, and the relentless bore of the salt breeze, yet there they stood, a stubborn etching, a well-worn shrine. The building showed quiet neglect. Planks of siding sagged into one another, furred with lichen and warped with moisture. The screen door hung aslant, large slashes tearing the mesh. Faded oaks trailed gobbets of Spanish moss over the toothed wooden shingles of the roof, gracious swag of eaves cupping the flat grey bowl of sky. Before, this had always seemed comfortable, a refuge. Now it was tired.
As she grasped her hand along the wooden rail of the stairs Manya felt a hard, dry splinter pierce her palm. She tugged at the projecting end and it broke, leaving a dark needle tucked beneath her skin.
Inside, the room smelled of seaweed, dark and salt-sticky. Out the window, small green brackenish things poked through dirty white sand.
Manya put the jagged splinter in the pocket of her jeans, smoothed her thumb over the reddening wound. “Hello?”
Maps tracing trail routes dripped from the walls of the rental office. Manya’s boots scuffed the dirty floor. Open brochures advertised prices for cabins and primitive sites. Firewood: four dollars for a bundle of finger-thin sticks. Across the street, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meetings for nature walks led by rangers from the state park. Manya knew them, eager and trained, their pressed brown uniforms with the Florida Park Service patch on the sleeve, a cross between a military rank and a Boy Scout badge. She studied canoe rental prices, restrictions on burning, a guide to the area’s venomous snakes. The small silver dome of a bell stared at her beside the cash register. The plunger made a useless click.
The woman who emerged from the back room had a robust glow that made the place seem quaint rather than shabby. Her cinnamon hair showed a margin of embarrassed blonde at the part. A cotton button-down shirt over a tight tank top, she had the sunburned look of a healthy, athletic woman who had never learned how to use cosmetics but slapped them on now as a barricade against advancing age.
Manya rubbed her stinging palm on her blue jeans. She should have put on a clean shirt. She should have combed her hair. She looked neglected, too.
“Reservation?” The woman’s voice held a rasp, from cigarettes or sea air. She glanced at the binder on the counter, flipped a page.
“Markova.” Manya placed her backpack on the floor and waited. Pages riffled. The woman’s look hit Manya on the chin, thin and narrow.
“Not anymore.” She shouldn’t need to explain this every time. The naturalization ceremony at seventeen, the tests and the solemn oath in the courthouse while the Girl Scouts dipped and swirled the flag. The university tried to charge her as an international student, though she’d lived in the country since she was five. She was tired of justifying her existence.
“Says here two adults.”
Manya smoothed her hand along the seam of her jeans. “It’s just me.”
“Same price.” She snapped open a receipt book. Manya looked at the golden wedding band on the woman’s finger. Tanned skin folded around it like protection. Beneath the metal, Manya guessed, the skin was stark white, like the underbelly of a sea-going creature that never saw light.
“The other . . . my . . .” She tried again. “He died,” Manya said.
That look again, a quick swoop, not quite to the level of Manya’s eyes. The woman’s voice dropped a pitch, thick as syrup. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Her vowels opened at the end like wings. I’m so sorr-ah. The gull-eyes dipped to Manya’s left hand, bare of ring or markings. The cotton shoulders gathered in a shrug.
“Need linens?” she said, scratching the paper.
“Yes.” Manya bit her lip. She needed so many things.
“I’ll bring ‘em out before supper.” Her host tore off a receipt and held it over the plastic-capped counter. “You pore thing.”
“It was sudden,” Manya said. “No warning. Just like that.” She picked up her backpack and held the straps with both hands.
“Those are the worst,” the woman agreed. She pointed east. “Last one on the left.”
“You still have canoes for rental?” Manya handed her cash.
“Oh, honey, there’s weather comin tonight,” the woman assured her, ringing open the cash register. “Didn’t you see that sky?”
Manya regarded the sky as she parked before the last cabin in the row and heaved open the hatchback. Sadie sailed out in a spatter of hot fur. The sheltie was just starting to lose her winter coat. She thrust her nose in the air, desperately sniffing. The sky was the color of the water was the color of the sea oats bending in the breeze. A watercolor by a troubled artist: Glowering Sky with Dog. Sadie charged into the gulf and kicked up a sheet of spray. The droplets sprang high and hung for a moment, turned slowly, then collapsed into the tide while the dog tried to bite them out of the air.
Manya had forgotten the sound of the ocean. That thrumming like an endless world-size heart, hurling the water onto the sand and then, repentant, taking it back.
The tent sat rolled in its factory sealed bag. Manya pushed it aside. They had talked, long ago, of tenting together, going deep into the woods. Interesting couples shared a hobby. Winter camping, trail camping, backwoods country wide open to just the two of them, tucked like turtles into their below-zero sleeping bag. He was a mountain boy, wind in the blood. He left the unused tent with her after that last calm discussion, when he walked down the long flight of stairs into nothing. He left everything behind.
She’d reserved the luxury cabin, the biggest they had. One broad room, a fireplace flagged with attractive grey stone, a deep couch facing the window facing the sea. A sink and more counter space than a restaurant. A door leading to the closeted bathroom, and stairs circling to the loft overhead. The smell of sawdust, motes drifting through the pine-damp air. A quiet mold on the inside of things, like regret.
Manya stood in the center of the room, falling into the forgotten pulse of the ocean. She listened for her heart, for what it was doing deep in there, but had no sense of it beating. Nobody thought about the heart and its steady work until, of course, it stopped working. She wondered who had helped him, who had come around the corner of the locker room to find him stranded on the cold tile, one hand to his gasping chest. The shut row of metal doors slanting down around them. The email sent out to everyone said he hit his head on one of the wooden benches. The coroner’s report noted the contusion, not contributing to death. She imagined his hands clenched into the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, or perhaps covering his throat. And the person who found him thinking, oh shit, oh shit, this is the end of my nice normal day.
She wondered who had called Jeannette. His wife.
She stood yet in the center of the room, watching the clouds like a layer cake billow from west to east, when a sharp knock blew the door open. Upstairs, a thump as Sadie threw herself off the bed and slip-slid down the narrow stairs.
“Thought I’d bring em now. I got time.” The cabin keeper wore grey slacks and a pair of muddy boots.
“Oh.” Manya held out her arms for the bedsheets. The woman moved past her and set the folded items on the couch. Her eyes moved along the room, looking to see what Manya had brought to the place. Luggage, extra blankets, candles wrapped within them. Hardly any food.
“Y’all right?” Her eyes were grey, too, like the sky. An effect of living too long next to the ocean, where the wind could be cold through the winters. storms drawing the color out of everything, the idle boredom, the visitors leaving, always leaving.
“I’m all right,” Manya said.
“What was it, then?” the woman asked.
“What was what?” Manya put a hand on the stack of linens. Already they bore a fine sheen of sea salt.
“Your husband. You said it was quick.”
“Oh,” Manya said. “Aneurism. Heart.” Had she said he was her husband?
The woman put her hand on her chest, just as Manya had when she first heard the news. Checking. She’d held it there for the most of that day, skipping the class she taught, calling in sick to the testing site. She imagined Jeannette, now a widow, doing the same thing, perhaps right this moment at the wake in the funeral home, holding an arm across her chest as people filed by and collapsed against her. Tomorrow, during the funeral, there would be eulogies from astounded friends. He was so young, they would all say. He ran marathons. He had a strong heart, a many-miled heart. It should have gone on pumping in all its electro-hydraulic splendor for decades, millions more beats left in it.
From the beginning, he called Manya once in a while, late at night. At first she didn’t answer. In the messages it sounded like he was crying.
The storm hung in the sky all evening, waiting. Manya took Sadie for a walk. She remembered more sand, more wildness, more beach, but there was only a strip of nubbly gravel shielding the water from the bristle of sea oats along the embankment. Shells and pebbles swatched the sand, a tiny crunch beneath her feet. The musty smell like a basement, moisture so thick the air was viscous. She remembered the breeze clean and sharp.
Insects grated from the trees, rising and falling like waves. The sea moved toward her and the sky away, a dappled grey tabby streaked with dust. Sadie’s hair stood straight with electricity. The thunder sounded like distant traffic, the dim row of cabin lights strung like pale bright shells along the shore. The sand was light oatmeal, shale spotted with bits of red and blue, stretching away into a moist fog. Any moment he might walk from it, arms full of driftwood for a fire, stepping from another world where his heart was still beating, a world where she had said yes.
A red, raised nimbus circled the tiny jag of wood in her palm, working its way in. He told her on their first date that he had gravel under his skin. Boyhood accident, a header over the handlebars of his bike. The road peeled layers from his hip and leg but his elbow hit first, driving small rocks deep under the epidermis. His parents, Christian Scientists, saw no need for doctors to tell them the debris was safe to stay there. It was earth-made material; the cells, living and dying, would push the foreign matter out.
But the elbow scabbed, then healed, and a bumpy, bubbly patch remained. Manya had liked the strange texture of it, the terrain of an alien planet. Skin beneath her fingers, but something else terrestrial deep beneath that. She was no biologist; she studied geophysics, the land with its features and fields and inevitable forces. She understood electromagnetics, thermometrics, the hydrology of his sweating body, the moving plates of his bones. The meteorology of their combined atmosphere, with its strange and unmeasurable currents.
Manya paused as Sadie sniffed a spot on the beach. The trees fretted, tossing up their branches. The rustling wind sounded like rain. Small leaves and bits of moss revolved through the air. The chant of the insects grew monotonal. The dog lifted her sandy muzzle and whined.
Manya grabbed a loose stick and pried at the small dome of sand. The scissored claw of a crab emerged first, then its body, upside-down. With the stick she flipped it over. It clipped to the side, leaving small mounds of sand in its trail, then paused, resting. It must have been suffocating, trapped in the small space it had fled for refuge.
He’d planned adventures for them, safaris in Africa, canoe trips down the Amazon. It was she who said they should date other people. He grew heavy in sleep, throwing his arm across her chest, pressing her deep into the blankets. His hands started to clutch. On the wall calendar he outlined in black marker the weeks she was gone for conferences or research. The gravel under his skin itched.
Jeannette was Catholic. She believed in insurance, checkups. His voice on the messages had the tone she’d heard when he called her name in his sleep. Deep in nightmares he muttered the Russian phrases he learned so he could phone her parents. Hello. How are you. I am well, thank you. May I speak to Manya? Is Manya there?
The storm broke when she was still half a mile from the cabin. The trees raged with wind and loose leaves swooped like bats. Tendrils of lightning struck and shimmered, magnified. Thunder rattled her teeth. Sadie streaked for shelter as the first cold drops fell and goosebumps blossomed on Manya’s arms. The rain whirled to meet her, blurring the world like a dusty mirror. Raindrops bounced off her shoulders, her calves, the back of her neck, places that for a long while had been touched by no hand but her own. The rain dotted her skin in frantic code.
Manya closed her eyes and lifted her face, listening to the message being tapped into her. She was alive. The ocean swelled and roared as raindrops patterned its surface. She’d forgotten how it felt, the ragged desperation of it, the joy that caught in the chest. The man she had loved was dead, and she was alive.
At the cabin, she toweled off and filled the kettle with cold water. Visiting hours were over. The room would be empty save for the chairs and flowers, the poster boards of pictures, his marathon medals and track trophies, the dried corsage from their wedding. Manya had been on a research semester in Brazil but she mailed a leaded glass cocktail set as a gift. A few weeks after the honeymoon, she received a thank-you card embossed with the wife’s new initials. Graceful handwriting expressed their gratitude for the glasses, gave their new address. Much later Manya realized neither of them drank.
And then what? His wife would go home to the house they bought together. His parents would return to their hotel and pray. Jeannette would ask her high school friends to stay with her, the same women who had been her bridesmaids. She was not the type to spend nights alone. She would press her dress for the funeral the next day, set out her shoes, put Kleenex and aspirin in her matching purse. She would stay up late weeping, or staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, into a darkness so complete it silenced the terror.
Manya built a fire and unrolled the sleeping bag on the sanded floor. The kettle boiled. She wasn’t required to fast, but she would anyway. She draped a cloth over a driftwood side table and set out her icons, her rosary, her prayerbook, the candles she had lit for him every night since the call. The air was too thick for thought. She watched the fire climb the stiff currents, bend itself in a plunging ballet.
He thought her work, her research came between them. He thought reasoned arguments would bring her back. In her family they arranged marriages, daughters matched with the nice sons of childhood friends. As mates they were kind, respectful, polite. They did not produce tempestuous declarations, tears and longings. From that first kiss outside out dorm room, the hurried embraces in the halls of her lab, she knew there was no way they fit together, him sweaty from basketball practice, her hands smelling of copper. He was a cowboy and she was Russian. They lived on different tectonic plates.
The phone on the wall rang. Manya dropped her rosary. She’d turned off her cellphone, no service. Who knew she was here?
The phone rang again, and Manya approached slowly, surprised the power had not been knocked out. She lifted the black receiver. “Hello?”
“Call for you,” the rental woman said, and Manya heard a series of clicks, then an uncertain voice, a woman’s. “Hello?”
“Jeanette?” Manya said.
“Manya?” She sounded confused. Manya imagined her looking at the phone, frowning. She’d had a tiring day and would be fuzzy-headed from weeping. “You’re at this number? I . . .” She trailed off. They never knew what to say to one another.
“How are you?” Manya whispered.
Jeannette started to cry. The sounds were quiet beneath the wind pounding the window, but Manya heard the small gasps for air. She felt a needle in her heart and wondered if that was what he had felt, except larger, a swell like the tide and then the startling burst.
“Are you coming tomorrow?” Jeanette asked between hitches.
“I hadn’t planned to,” Manya said.
A gulp, then a small high hiss, like the cry of a bird. “He would want you there.”
Manya looked at the prayer candles, the three flames dipping and dancing in the currents of air. “I’ll come if you want me,” she said.
“It’s so awful,” Jeannette sobbed. “I had to buy him underwear. I bought my husband new underwear to bury him.” That high, steady whine again. It sounded like a gale blowing in from the gulf. “His mother complained about the coffin I picked. She didn’t like the silver handles. And he—Manya, it doesn’t even look like him. They put him in so much makeup.”
Out the window Manya watched the lightning streak between the upper banks of clouds, bands of dark holding the blinding flash. Manya pictured him in his navy suit, his face old beneath the embalming, all the clever tricks applied to dead flesh. He would not look like someone either of them had known, had touched every inch of.
“Everyone keeps talking about how young he is. How sudden. Looking at him to figure out—what I did to him. What I did wrong.” Jeannette lost herself in sobbing.
In the fire a stick snapped its fingers, and Manya jumped. Outside, the trees howled and threw up their hands.
After a while, Jeannette quieted. “I found this number in his work planner.” Manya heard her hoarse breathing. “He said he was going away with a friend.”
He’d come here often with her, their getaway while she was in graduate school, he in training at the law firm. He’d proposed to her in a canoe on the river trail, the vessel rocking slightly as he knelt. The summer heat had itched her skin and tiny black flies tacked to her eyes and her sweaty neck. She closed her mouth when he asked her. The words knocking at her lips were nonsense rhymes her baba had sang to her, games she had played in the preschool of a village that no longer existed. He’d left and she’d stayed, with her lab and her St. Olga cross and her dreams in Russian, and she didn’t have to go to races or office parties or American ball games anymore.
“I come here this time every year,” Manya said. “He must have remembered.”
A long silence, while the wind whined. “He’s been calling you?” The voice tiny, spoken through a small point, far away.
Manya rubbed the raw swell of her palm over her heart. “Once or twice,” she said. “Just catching up. You know he is good—was good—at keeping in touch.”
She stumbled over the tenses. Waited for Jeannette to piece things together, catch her in the lie.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Jeannette said, her voice faint, thin, weary. “Nothing makes sense. I feel gutted.” A pause. “You should be there. For him.”
Manya looked at the red furrow in her hands. “I’ll come,” she said.
She fixed lemon tea and stoked the fire and thumbed her rosary, stroking the old beads, the weighted tassels. The thunder roared and hurled itself across the gulf to the distant lands beyond. She understood what was required. Penance. A final goodbye. Confession, witness, and absolution, so Jeannette believed things were over. Would never know she had almost lost her husband again.
Morning dawned light as a pearl. The sky held the same white tint as the sand, the sea grey as the sea oats. Manya found the crab. It had pulled its body a few inches from its hole and anchored its one claw into the sand, holding against the tide. With her foot Manya bunched sand around the carcass and wondered why no other animal had disturbed it. She couldn’t have known it was dying.
She placed the stack of linens on the plastic counter at the rental office, floral side up. The woman wore the same button-down shirt. The blonde roots showed a wider margin, already reclaiming their own. She patted the top sheet gently.
“Storm keep you awake?” she asked.
“No,” Manya said honestly.
“I guess everybody grieves different,” the woman said. Her sharp eyes fastened on Manya’s left ear.
“I found a crab on the beach last night,” Manya said at the door. She stopped and looked up at the faded map of the Florida Gulf coastline. “It had one claw.”
The woman watched her. “Stone crab,” she said, as if she could still hear the foreign accent, as if Manya knew nothing about the United States, nothing about the deep and secret workings of the earth. “That’s how they harvest them. It grows back.”
“This one won’t,” Manya said. “It was dead this morning.”
The man’s shirt fluttered as her shoulders rolled, the ring on her finger winking. This woman wouldn’t know how the heart could swell from all that was stuffed into it, hurt and anger, guilt and neglect, growing so fat and gluttonous and engorged that its burst open. What had he thought about in those last seconds? His wife, and his lie to her? Maybe it felt like pitching headfirst over the handlebars, that fiery burn as the blood rushed everywhere, spinning weightless in a moment of space, far from the safe warm hands of prayer.
Manya didn’t have an answer. Why she had told him the date, made the reservation. Why, after all this time, she’d said yes.
A swallow-tailed kite dipped past the window, giving its lonely cry.
“It’s not something you’d wish on anybody,” the woman said.
Manya pulled the door shut behind her.
Sadie leapt into her seat in the back of the wagon and settled on the unused tent. Next to it sat the jar holding her real wedding present from Brazil: rainforest soil, for that trip they’d never taken. In five hours she would be there, file into St. Mary’s with everyone else in their quiet shades of black. There would be beautiful words, tears and flowers, solemn ritual to surround the magnificent blankness of death. Manya would stand with Jeannette next to his grave and say the words she’d owed him for a long time. They would fall the way the rain pockmarked the ocean, brief and then disappearing, bubbling like gravel under an elbow it had once been hers to kiss.
Manya turned the car north, toward the highway, toward the priest and the quiet confession. Behind her the horizon of sea stood empty, blank and still. She looked at her hand and saw that the skin of her palm had closed over the splinter, encasing it as in glass. She would carry it with her, a memory made flesh. If she could not be forgiven then at least she, too, would be marked.
Misty Urban is the author of the story collections A Lesson in Manners and The Necessaries. Recent stories have appeared in Fiction Attic, District Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Mama, and from Write Out Publishing. Find her online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a website for women in/and/of books.
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