A Small Wild Road


Edie was not actually ashamed of having no affection for her aunt, Sophie; but she was ashamed of her fear of Sophie, of her room, of her ambiance. She had gratitude – but gratitude was very small beer indeed, compared with affection.

No monster of chill, she was grateful for eight years of protection, five of a home of sorts; even for the sort of rather querulous dependence that had come with a relationship genetic and circumstantial. The only thing she really minded was the fear. Did everyone who spent any amount of time in a state of fear become so afraid of their fear? After all, Sophie’s pain was sternly limited, and Edie spent little time in its presence. But there it was.

Driving to Holly Hill the shorter way, in April’s melting air, in order to get back sooner, she could feel the familiar tightening in her gut. She accepted it as a child might accept inevitable punishment in the knowledge that it would soon be over. But then it was never to be over and done with until, she bluntly thought, Sophie died, something it seemed doubtful she would consent to do in the close future.

Edie could have driven to the nursing home through the spring woods; but instead she took the thruway, fifteen minutes shorter, all malls and signs and gigantic reproductions of the less attractive foods. Gas pumps, billboards, immense paper faces with immense paper smiles. The Holly Hill nursing home itself was on a quiet outcrop, a tiny corner of the valley, but that was miles ahead.

Edie went there twice a month; once in a while, in response to a plea, a problem, an errand, oftener. Always she was afraid to go.

She was just past her twenty-third birthday. When she had been growing up, there had been a great deal of yelling going on. The violence never did reach the physical stage. That would have been so socially unacceptable as to hover just out of rage’s reach. But hostility kept the house.

Always, Edie had been not so much timid as resentful of the ugly; and it had seemed to her that each time she crossed the threshold of home, ugliness – of face, of voice, of ferocity of intent – washed over her like an appalling tide. She was in the presence of the infliction of pain, and pain was the ugliest of all things. That had been one kind of pain.

By fifteen, Edie had intended to escape, and perhaps would have run dramatically away, exposed, a penniless and only child. But her parents – fadingly handsome, bright, alcoholic, and intransigent – had been blown up in a freak plane accident, as though they had carried their violence with them into the skies. There was no one but Sophie, still managing to cling to an overstuffed and orderly apartment, and Sophie had carried her off.

Uncongenial was the word for that atmosphere; but not painful, not ugly. Then, quite soon, with the utmost perverseness, it turned very ugly indeed. Sophie faithlessly developed a horrifying and terminal, but not very promptly terminal, illness. And after a series of live-in nurses (friendly, but beset by all the normal misadventures of daily life) had held the fort spasmodically, Sophie had ended at Holly Hill, and Edie in the first major possession of her life: a midget and not particularly nice apartment, but sunny, quiet, except for music and casual voices, and never, never, never a source of shock.

Except for the paralyzed and paralyzing moments in Sophie’s room, Edie realized that it was normal, and possible, and splendid, to have healthy and cheerful friends, to have a lover she liked, if she decided to like him sufficiently, to look as pretty as she could, and to feel self-protected. Those deaths, years ago, had never been real. They had not even provided bodies.

At the next exit she put on her flash and turned right, into a suburban road. A mile from the thruway, there were even fields; white rail fences, with dark and pale horses stooping their heads to the new green. Set far back, solid houses of brick and timber. And everywhere around her, growth full and pointed, swelling and bursting to petals and shoots and small sticky leaves. She felt the old anger that she must contravene all this, and as she swung through the big shining black gates, she found again that her teeth were locked, and felt the faint queasiness.

Though Sophie was a little worse, a little less a normal human being, at each visit, the retreat was so gradual a process that each time it was only after she had figuratively fled (though she stepped slowly and with some composure into the free air again) that Edie could spot the difference: the warped neck holding the head at a more downward angle, so that Sophie seemed to be peeking at Edie from the corners of her eyes; the feet more uselessly set under the pretty striped afghan; the hand that still gripped hers as if to trap it, more bony and disjointed.

This afternoon it turned out that someone had brought Sophie a great spray of dogwood. The nurse had stuck it into a green bottle-shaped vase on the broad window ledge, and the greeny-white petals, singed and lightly curved up at the edges, mooned over Sophie’s welcoming twist of her head, the eyes’ swivel upward that sent a chill of repugnance over Edie’s warm skin.

There they sat, opposite each other, while Edie brought out the stale and desolate phrases. What lovely dogwood! Who had brought it? (Indistinguishable murmur. Mrs. Burton? Mrs. Hendron? Both sporadically remembered Room 408 at Holly Hill.) Edie said she had played her first game of tennis. It felt wonderful. (This immediately seemed a bad thing to have said.) The room, even with the spring air filtering through the window’s careful crack, seemed dead, a taxidermist’s mock-up. Though Edie felt that she must have been perched, solidly frightened, on her chair-edge for an hour, in ten minutes she was asking, Wasn’t there something she could bring next time? (Heavy emphasis on Next Time.) A new bed jacket? Were there really plenty? Some wonderful special ice cream she had had with a sort of heavy built-in butternut swirl? She was interrupted by a powerful murmur – yes, yes there was something. But what on earth? She strained closer, scared and frustrated. Lilacs? Could it be lilacs? They were barely out, there was no fragrance yet. She could get some. But no, no, no, the sidewise head shook. Not lilacs. Water. Water! Edie sprang up. A glass of water. Oh easy easy. But no, lilacs again. The murmur struggled. Water. Lilacs. Edie gave a leaping guess. Toilet water! Lilac toilet water? Yes, yes, the eyes gleamed up. Edie leaped to her feet again, as though besought to rush off at once.

“Of course, Sophie. It’s lovely. I’ll bring it, next time. I’ll bring it next week!” she recklessly cried, the quicker return lost in the present escape. Sophie put out a crooked hand, but Edie, released by her mission, had closed her eyes, and with a tiny shudder had brushed her lips to Sophie’s perfect permanent.

April, April flowed around her to the car, and she turned the slightly warm and blessed wheel left at the gates toward the road that cut through the valley.

Edie had such a good, well, really, a flawless week, that she forgot and forgot again the toilet water and the speeded-up visit. And she felt sure Sophie had instantly forgotten what she had wanted. But on an afternoon when the sun had been sucked under, and tennis looked unlikely, she dashed off to pick up a bottle. Removed from its cardboard box, it had an unlikely logo of crested purple bloom. Opened, it gave off a slightly synthetic but familiar fragrance.

Edie decided to go then, that very day, since she now had the thing in her possession; and who could be afraid of a bottle of lilac toilet water in a box from which she pried the pricemark?

The latish April afternoon was a quintessence of the idea of spring. After not one day of rain, pale bruised clouds sat softly over the film of green on the highest branches. Edie put on a gold light raincoat; she hoped a nurturing rain would mist the earth.

She gave herself extra time, and cut through a small wild road toward the country route. The little road was narrow and not much used; it was the tag-end of an abandoned conservation effort. The air through the car window was wonderfully mingled with fresh smells, and when ahead of her a redstart lit on a branch slim enough to dip, Edie stopped. She pushed the gear into Park, and watched the small bird swell furiously with a shudder of feathers. The redstart sprang into air, and Edie, pleased with the appropriate, shoved into Drive.

There was a sharp curve where Holly Brook first came into view, suddenly bright and busy down the little ravine, flowing between the tangle of brambly blackberry bushes. There would be no bumpy lustrous berries for weeks. The brook would follow her almost to the Valley Road before vanishing.

It was just as she rounded the curve that she hit the dog.

One instant the road was blank, and in the next, a furry flash, a thud, and the dog shot through the air and landed on the left, at the foot of a small sapling on the ditch’s edge.

Already he was behind her, and already his high furious screams were fading as she put her foot to the floor and the car slammed to a stop, stalling. Even that far behind, the screams, piercing as a factory whistle, went on purposefully.

She reversed and backed, the sound increasing, as though coming to meet her. Here it was. She pulled over, opening her door.

The dog, a big brown mongrel, was half in the shallow ditch. Its body was making a series of small leaps, in place. It gained scarcely an inch.

Its back must be broken. It seemed strong.

Edie got out. She leaned against the car and stared around for help. But the only things happening were the dog’s frantic upheavals, birdcalls here and there, and the light’s motion on the brook.

She took several steps toward the dog. She could see a trickle of blood from its open jaws. How many teeth it had.

When she got a little closer, it lifted its muzzle barely toward her, steadily screaming. She turned straight around and went back to her car. Its door hung open.

She seized the door’s handle, and put her foot into the car, onto the rubber mat. She could feel the car accelerate, fly fly forward. Out loud she said: “It will stop that. It has to die in a minute. Before I am out of sight, it will stop that.”

She withdrew her foot, and stood looking away, as though someone might come, or be coming. Nothing appeared.

She turned toward the dog. It pumped its body, and continued to scream, with a sharper sound. She looked around.

A rock. She was looking for a rock, as she prayed not to see one. But there were several, off the roadside. One lay under the ferns, almost beside her; a big, lumpy one with a whitish color. When she bent to pick it up, it was even heavier than it looked. Spring had not warmed it.

The dog, between and with its screams, had begun a snatching snarl as she came closer. There was another loud sound, and she realized it was a roaring in her ears. The weight of the rock seemed to be pulling her into the ground.

Just above the racket, she lifted the rock in both hands, straining her wrists, and harder than any tennis serve, so hard she almost fell forward, she brought it down on the jumping head.

There was an indescribable sound; and then silence. It surged over them, marvelous and new. Edie looked down.

She went and leaned against another sapling. Her hand was fouled, and there was blood on the skirt of her raincoat.

In a minute or two, she went through the ferns, down to the brook.

Squatting, she plunged her hands into the cold rapid water. It flowed away, stained, and then clear. She pulled off her raincoat and wiped her hands on its clean top. She looked around, but there was no place for it. Her leg scratched by briars, she climbed back up through the ferns. Their fiddleheads were curled tight.

As she went by, she looked down hard at the big brown body. A flea leaped lightly on the flank and vanished.

She went back to the car, and opening the luggage compartment, stuffed the folded raincoat behind the spare tire, top carefully uppermost. Then she got back behind the wheel and slammed the door.

She sat there, the lilac toilet water in its white container by her damp hand, limp on the fuzzy seat. She had nothing on which to dry it further.

She sat in a quiet and pure amazement. No one passed, and she did not look back over her shoulder.

The silence was good. She had created it. She looked at the careful pink of her nails. It was not chipped. But her hands were different.

She admired them, lax and guiltless. They had been waylaid.

The random quality of pain, the catholicity of its sizes, occurred to her. The sounds that had stopped, like the redstart, were part of the April air. She heard the brook, still rustling.

The brook, and her hands, and the day, were ordinary.

Her mind was quite blank and restful. Eventually, she turned the key, and the car, obediently, slowly, easily, began to move forward.

She drove like that, without thought, and finally she came up on the left of the big gates. A few drops starred the windshield. She turned in.

The rain was sprinkling the parking lot; she sat and watched the windshield mist over and begin to send bright stretched drops zigzagging down after each other. Then there was a faint light rattle on the roof.

Miss Monory was at the nurses’ station, and “Hello! Miss Gordon!” she said in her tone of recorded pleasure, as Edie passed.

But Edie was so used to the fog of fear in the hall that it wasn’t until she pushed open the door of 408, her other hand gripping the little box, that she knew her breath was coming easily; and that she had in her hand a present.