Claud took the albino toad off her tongue.
She plopped the toad in a moonlit glass. Her tiny toadlet glowed pink and white, twice it sprang in the milky puddle before settling on the stone at the bottom of the glass. Claude puckered, squeaked her chair forward a notch and pondered the fruits of sleep, eternal sleep and life everlasting. Kasper John was already snoring across the room.
When Claud Turlow slept, she slept in the hooky slew betwixt Choat’s Peak and Old Riddle Top. Most nights she slept sitting up since her legs had been sawed off. It was a sight easier than putting herself to bed, though some nights it would be warmer under her dead mama’s patchwork. She could always ask little brother to help her from the chair–Kasper John was only forty-seven and his back hadn’t quit on him yet. But she liked it here by the window where she could tune in the stars and the lovely voices from beyond. Needed her voices, she did. You know the kind.
Not that she slept much these days. Her sleep was often disturbed. There were too many intrusions.
Sometimes her toes felt a tickle and she went to scratch them that weren’t there. They still fooled her, every time. It had been almost a dozen years since the sugar diabetes got into her chunky legs, since dead Doc Sax took them off on that kitchen table over there. But sometimes she’d swear her legs hurt just as bad as ever. There was no justice in it. She could not walk, but wherever her toe-bones were, wiggling without her tonight, they could still riddle Miss Claud with a blue-edged pain and even bluer old blues for to trouble her sleep.
This could not be said of Kasper John Turlow. You could not trouble him. Who would dare? Who would want to trip his slow, rattled breath over there, in the darkness? Yes. Brother always slept the night.
And wouldn’t he get up dull in the morning when she scraped the skillet onto the woodstove? And wouldn’t he sit at that butcher’s table through breakfast, barely awake and muttering in one long drone about how tired a body felt? Then her brother would spend tomorrow yawning around the place, barely awake as usual and never quite figuring out why.
It seemed to Claud that long, tall Kasper John had never really wakened since they were babies. Not like her own keen yet wasting life at all. Kasper John had been stuck here forever betwixt Choat’s Peak and Old Riddle Top, just as she had. But Kasper John was steady, forever steady, if your idea of steady was a flat rock with no expression and no plans to speak of. He even looked much the same to her, though Claud knew his face must have seasoned over the years. But then, Johnny was pretty old from the get go.
For Claud, creeping closer to sixty years of life meant too much had changed for her to ever sleep easy. More years meant more bad memories, unpleasant dreams. She heard Kaspar John murmur, looked over to see his bones ripple on the bunk. She was trying not to dwell on the lost pieces of herself, misplaced heartsongs that little brother would know piddling about.
Once, it seemed, Claud Turlow had been fair and full of promise. Tonight she was just cranky. Tonight she might scare the chickens. And she wanted a sweet, gooey tarbaby from the cookie box no matter what Nursy Jane had said. Sweet dead Nursy Jane. Sweet dead Sisilse Bane. Oh, all those sweet dead children. How could Claud be left here, just being? Asking for good fortune from a white toad on a stone, alive like this, while so many sweet ones perish? Once, she dreamt ballerina dreams and fancied herself as a dancer, until her dead mama filled her with enough lard and molasses cookiess to change everybody’s mind.
Sometimes, in Claude’s mind, she was still a dancer. But tonight she looked down at the stumps beneath her paisley robe and did not see what difference another tarbaby or two could make. Claud did not figure she was long for this world with or without. Still, a trip to the cookie box meant rumbling past Kasper John’s cot. She did not want to risk waking brother. No, that would not do.
The mountains whispered, the spreading elm fluttered outside her window. Her puffy finger hooked aside the curtain so she could peer outside. Nothing else moved out there, except the watery slew, as if no night creature could bother with this night. No death peddlers. No love. No hope. Nothing she could be sure of, other than brother. Only wind milling in the marsh grass.
These were the empty nights she fretted most. One of Kasper John’s nights, she feared. She thought about the tarbaby a moment and reached a proper decision. She would just sit here. She would just sit and think about it for a spell. The tarbaby would wait.
But Kasper John, he would not wait. Not much longer. The moon crept higher over their private slew where the flash floods ran in spring but never after solstice, where the dark road below their yard lay in deep doldrum, and somehow in his sleep Kaspar John felt it. The deprived nothingness of this night. Claude knew he felt it. These were the signs she knew too well. They inflicted strange dread upon her. Soon he would go out that door and walk. Wouldn’t he?
She wondered where he might go and who he would visit there. Once or twice in the last few years she had caught him muttering to somebody outside. Always just outside the door, always far enough gone she couldn’t quite make out his words. Maybe he was visiting strangers on the porch, maybe down by the road. She could never tell.
He began his travels as a very young man, just before his high voice dropped into the bass fiddle it was today. Yet, for the longest time their mama, the Widow Turlow, never knew–and when she did finally suspect then saw her suppositions turn real, their mother was still afraid to ask. Claud was keen all along, almost from the very beginning. She and Kaspar John slept side by side for so many years that Claud sensed her little brother’s stirrings even after he had moved to another cot. But her mama hated the unfamiliar thing, and feared more than she hated. From the day her beloved husband died of yellow jaundice, fear had been a cramped hand on the tiller of their long dead mother’s life. Claud was already Claud by then (never Claudine), the oldest child, old beyond her nine and a half years. And Claud could hardly remember the man. Baby Kasper John Turlow was still sucking his fingers in the crib, just drawing new breath from this world as their sire breathed his last.
And from that last breath onward, fear began killing her dead mama in slow degrees. Geese flew honking threw the hills, ruddy ducks splashed down out there then moved on with the seasons. But not the Widow Turlow.
Mama rarely left the slew in ensuing years. She did not want or choose to visit folks. When push came to shove, she would let one of her two children go down to the store in Cayuga Ridge for some necessary item, usually Claud since she was the eldest by almost a decade and the one with the most gumption. No, Claud’s dead mama did not risk much after her husband abandoned her for the grave. The Widow Turlow clung to what little she had. She fed sweets and gravy to her only daughter to tamp down her spirit, keeping her girl here where she belonged with the shadow woman that bore her, and she fed ridicule to her shy boy so he would never grow into a man, so he would never leave her like a man was meant to do.
Her mama gave what schooling she had to Claud and, later, Claud passed it on to little Kasper John who did not stay little for long. He grew tall, and when the occasional crusty uncle would come down the slew to check on them, or in the brittle cold months when hunters would sometimes pass near their place, building cook fires and brewing coffee, Kasper John came out of the shadows. On those days, Kasper John was forever hanging close to the older men, trying to soak up what he could, longing to match them in the endless drawl of highflown tales and sage observances. He liked the way they laughed though he never laughed himself. Sometimes, when they were friendly enough and didn’t scare mama too much, she would let them camp by the road most of an afternoon with a dancing fire and their kill hanging from the redbud tree. Kasper John could not be lured away from their circle on those days until the kill was skinned and parceled out, until the last wager had been settled, until the men all went home.
And this made his dead mama very nervous. And her nervous conniptions worsened with each passing year. Widow Turlow cast lizard guts and prayer bones upon the hearth, studying the patterns within the muck, looking for an answer. In time, she shunned any and all passersby, forcing the same upon her children. The world out there could not be allowed to spirit her children away. For them, outside friends and affairs of the heart remained out of the question.
But Claud loved sad Kasper John. She had loved him dearly, had she not? Surely this was true, for there was a tiny grave up in the chinquapin wood, was there not? Or did she just wish it had been?
“Where you beendagomomo…”
Claud heard his voice.
She looked over from the window.
He had said something. He called out. It sounded like he was hailing some familiar soul, but the name was too slurred to understand.
Claud bristled. She still bristled after all these ages of his coming and going. She could just barely make out Kasper John’s form in the shadowed corner of the room.
Kasper John sat up in bed. He sat up and Claud was breathless. It would do no good to question him, she knew that. He was asleep. He would sleep through the night.
Kasper John got dressed slowly, as was his custom, he dressed himself with care. Frozen in her moonlit chair, she watched him do it. He put on his dark trousers, his white cotton shirt, and he laced his boots with a sense of purpose Claude longed to possess. His eyes were open, his face faceless. Tucking and folding, he made his neat little bed. Then Kasper John shuttled softly across the boards, reached up, and took his tobacco and papers from the fireplace mantle. Every step was like a clock wound inside him, slow-ticking and taut in this silent room they had forever shared. As he turned for the door another voice broke the silence.
“Kasper John?” she pled.
Claud could not help herself. She often could not keep from calling, reaching out to him. How many nights, how many nights, how many nights?
He did not hear her of course. He was asleep. As asleep as she was awake and watching.
Kasper John was elsewhere. He pocketed tobacco and papers as he moved toward the door. He opened it and went out. He was careful to shut his room and latch it, matter-of-fact as a man leaving home to go vote.
He might be back in half an hour. He often was. Looking just the same, undressing as he had dressed, and waking in the morning without remembrance. She was sure of that much. There would be no remembrance on Kasper John’s part. Or, he might be hours gone, hours lost before returning to his bed.
Long after she heard his footfalls leave the porch, generations after she heard the gravel shuffle up the road into dark nothing–into the flux of water and leaf–Claud still sat puckered by the window. The moonglow evaporated from her toadlet in the glass. The tarbaby, too, meant dark nothing to her now.
She dreamt awake. She dreamt she might roll across the room and take her dead mama’s conjure book from under the bed, then find the proper page so she could go with Kasper John, so she could skip alongside his long legs wherever he went. She would know not where or care. The dance was all that mattered. No matter where brother went, she would go tripping and waltzing, to wherever, to whoever brother saw fit.
© Randy Thornhorn
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