Let the Willows Weep Excerpt


The day he left is the day I swallowed red.  I know it was red because that is the color of rage and shame.  I was to learn though that it is also the color of passion and love but this didn’t occur to me at the time.

 I can understand why he would leave her, but me? I am not like her at all.  She is long and gaunt, stretched like a worn rubber band.  Her skin is no longer pink but sallow like the underside of a chicken’s wrinkled throat. She spurts out commands and insults, sounding like our old ’66 Dodge choking on exhaust and gunk. Her voice has long been hardened by the years of inhaling King-size Kent cigarettes.  But it’s the words, not the tone, that snip and tear at your heart.  I guess he left before there was nothing left of his.  After all, he suffered a lot of her bites.

In town, the whispers are always just loud enough to reach my ears, murmurs of a time when she was pretty and possessed a voice that caressed men’s ears like silk. This is a woman I don’t know; I never have.  And when I steal a glance into her eyes, I can see that whatever took her away promises not to bring her back.  Mostly I don’t mind except when I catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and for a second I don’t see me…I see her.  

My sense of being seeped through the wooden slats when he walked off the porch as if all that was me was contained in the soles of his shoes. The battered screen door slammed against its frame, cracking the silence of the kitchen.  She grimaced in pain, saying the noise hurt her ears.  I guess it takes less pride for your ears to hurt than your heart but mine was shattered and my hatred for her grew in between every crevice.    

I sat motionless on the hard wooden chair with my legs tucked under the rungs, trying to avoid the splinters that constantly crept up to pinch and stab.  In the stillness, I felt the sweat trickle down my forehead and mingle with the tears.  The heat that day was the kind that robs many of their comfort and some of their sanity.  In that moment, I couldn’t look at her because I couldn’t bear to see which one she had lost.  

That was it.  He was gone in a slam of a door and the start of a coughing engine. The spinning tires whirled the dust into the air, creating tiny tornadoes. I wanted to run.  I wanted to run off the porch but I couldn’t.  I was afraid that if I did, I couldn’t catch the car or maybe worse, he wouldn’t stop and I would get caught in all those tiny tornadoes sucking me into their swirling anger and I would be forever lost.  So I sat still and I waited.  The heat bore heavy on my chest and my legs became leaden.

Dawn crept through the window.  Streams of light streaked the linoleum floor showing the yellow stains and deep cuts where dirt had settled into the grooves.  I watched as morning slowly swallowed the remaining night.  My head lay on the table.  I didn’t want to move my face from its cool spot but my neck started to tighten and ache.  I stood and shook sleep from my tired arms and legs.  

Through watery eyes, I squinted to see if the dust had settled.  But instead I saw the sun scorching the milky clouds.  The edges became rimmed in a burnt red.  It was a furious red, a red that makes your skin glisten with beads of sweat and your sight turn everything to spots.  Orbs of orange and yellow stripes smudged with blue cast down awakening the ground with day.  I stood as tall as I could which only amounted to about 4 feet and 11 inches if I really stretched.  I opened my mouth as wide as I could and let the color slip past my blistered lips, across my dry tongue, and down my throat.  I sunk to my knees, dropped my head, and waited for the color to fill me. 

“Stand up!  You know that I haven’t scrubbed the floor yet and now I have a dress to clean.” She bellowed, awakening me from my trance.  I stood obediently and turned to face her.  She was unmoved.  She appeared as she did yesterday and the day before that.  He left and it was as though everything was unaffected except that my heart was broken and hers only hardened more.  She went to the sink and began to wash last night’s supper dishes, which had been left in the commotion of yesterday’s events.  It was the only evidence that our life had been interrupted.  “They aren’t going to dry themselves,” she said, throwing me a dishtowel.  I slowly stumbled over to the dry board and picked up a dish.  The indigo pattern was faded and the edges were laced with tiny cracks and chips, a spider web story of sparse dinners and many washings.  

After the dishes were done, I remained in my spot watching her dry her hands on her worn apron.  As she turned to leave the kitchen, I timidly asked, “Is he going to come home?” My voice trailed off, leaving the words alone in the thick, humid air.  She spun around on her heel, her eyes like little shards of glass pierced into me. “I just mean…should I…” I faltered with the words.  “You don’t need to do anything and don’t ask stupid questions.  If he left, then he’s gone.  And in my experience child, those who leave with only their back facing you aren’t coming home.”  These were the only words of comfort that I was left with.  I swallowed hard, fighting back the tears and the urge to scream. 

The following weeks passed slowly and much the same as before, except that now they had more to discuss than the price of tomatoes and the weather; she made sure of that.  Although they snickered that they weren’t surprised, they managed to create new details in each telling to shock their friends.  I avoided their eyes when I passed, partly because I didn’t want them to see my shame but mostly because I didn’t want to see their pity.  Now, like a bastard child, keeping my head up would be a privilege not a right. 

As I continued walking I could feel my face become hot and I knew that the red I swallowed was surfacing in my cheeks, showing my embarrassment and anger.   I escaped town by walking behind the buildings and taking a little path through a wooded lot that backed up to our house.  She took the main road, keeping her head high and remaining confident.  She looked them straight in the eye as if daring them to question who she is or what she has done.  So my burden of shame was made heavier by her not having any.  

As the days wore on, each became hotter than the next.  It was soon the time of the year when the comfort of coolness is sought but rarely found.  The sweltering sun pushed me to find my own refuge.  I discovered my own secret place in the woods.  It became my sanctuary and its peace, a long desired friend.  

The spot was located by a small stream, which during this time had become dried showing its cracked and dirty underbelly.  A tree had fallen in one of the storms and lay near bent over with gnarled limbs and twigs jutting out.  I liked it because it reminded me of my grandma’s hands when she would fold them in her lap as she told one of her stories.  In the middle of all the twisted and crooked branches was an unexpected smooth area that resembled a saddle.  I would cautiously climb into position, swinging my spindly legs over both sides. And then, by pressing my hands down flat in front of me and lifting the weight of my body in one quick push, I was in the saddle and ready to ride.

Between the heavy rains and the heaving winds, the tree not only suffered the indignity of the fall but its roots had loosened causing the slightest bouncing motion to set the wooden carcass into an action mimicking the gallop of a horse.  In nature, it was a dead tree, lying lifeless with decay but in my imagination, it was my constant and faithful companion who would awake at my touch and become alive with movement. 

 My days were often spent roaming through dark forests where fairies and princesses played or galloping through fields of tall grass cool and damp with dew; the blades brushing against my legs, tickling my toes as each snaked by.  Tattered books stowed in her bedroom closet provided the images but it was my heart’s yearning that made the journeys real.  But just as journeys end when the destination is reached, my fantasies evaporated with the interruption of reality.

My daydreams disappeared as quickly as sighted ghosts when she called out for me, leaving me dizzy with the awareness of where I really was.  I heard her shriek my name again and again.  The sound seemed to bounce off every tree and finally fall upon my ears, echoing inside of my head for minutes before I was able to get my legs to unwind themselves from the tree.  I jumped to save time, causing my knees to feel the jolt of gravity.  After I got my bearings, I ran as fast as I could, stumbling through brambles and jumping over bushes in a race to reach the house before my name was shouted into the air one more time.  As I neared the clearing, with the yard in sight, I yelled back.  I suppose she thought I did it so she would know where I was but really I did it to silence her.  

As I approached her, she coolly looked at me from head to toe, examining me to discover what I had been doing as if I were a piece of important evidence from a crime scene.  I stood still keeping my head down so as not to allow her to see my face.  I didn’t mind much if my mud-splashed clothes told of where I had been but I didn’t want my eyes to reveal where I wanted to be.  

She reached down and touched the sleeve of my shirt pulling the material this way and that and then she began to brush the dirt off my shoulder.  She did this in brisk and harsh movements causing me to wince slightly.  I turned my head very slowly so that I could watch her out of the corner of my eye.  It was at that moment that I noticed her hands.  I always saw them but on that day I truly became aware of them.  Her hands were, as anyone’s, an important and vital part of the mechanical workings of her body but she kept them keenly out of sight by constantly moving them over dirty dishes or submerging them in scrub buckets of boiling water.  But now they had steadied themselves on my arm.  I could feel the heat and the texture of them on my skin.  A sad truth was revealed that day and it was her hands that betrayed her for they were what remained of the woman she once was.     

The skin on her hands was as pink as a baby’s body after months of being enveloped in a safe and nurturing fluid.  The tiny veins loomed beneath the skin in blue and purple attire, bearing witness to the flow of blood and strength to her limbs.  Her fingers were slender and nimble, proving to be extremely efficient in her daily tasks of wiping dirt free from our world but appearing as though they were made for flawless flights across piano keys.  They seemed to defy age by remaining free from the wrinkles and lines that circled her eyes.  Amazingly, hands that were used daily as instruments of labor resisted to show any signs of strain or damage, continuing to be soft and pretty.  Her nails were kept short for practicality but they were kept clean and lovely, shining with a glossy purplish hue.  Unadorned and uncompromising, her hands showed that her pride extended beyond her heart.  

Suddenly and abruptly, I felt her pull her hand from my line of vision.  She began to study them as I had been doing but her intensity expressed a painful reminiscence.  She stepped away from me as she turned her hand from front to back as if she too were surprised at what she found attached to her bony limbs. I raised my head and looked in her eyes, trembling slightly from my bold action and the rare occasion in which it occurred.  Her eyes were red-rimmed and slowly filling with tears. And in them I saw my reflection, blurred and warped, and again I saw that I mirrored her or maybe she mirrored me but mockingly the same nonetheless.   



My knuckles playfully poked up and down as I wiggled my fingers. The rosy tones of my flesh became blurred and hazy.  A small tear fell on the back of my hand with a muted drop but it struck my heart with a loud remembrance of a time nearly forgotten.  

“I swear that she stares at them more than she uses them.” 

“Now Caul, don’t you be mean.  I remember a time, not too long ago, that she quit staring long enough to use them to get you out of hot water.” Caul let out a long exhausted groan as his lips slipped into a smirk.  “Sure, she’s good for some things, I suppose.”

“She’s good for a lot of things.  Besides, she’s a scrapper and you really got to regard that in a girl, even one that’s your sister.  She’s the only girl I know who took on a bully like Billy Hawkin without a thought to getting punched yet managed to keep her hair tidy after rolling in the dirt.” 

I could hear almost every word of their conversation.  I overhear most of them but I only really listen to the ones that involve me.  The story of my fight with Billy Hawkin was the big talk in our family for the last few days.  Billy is in my grade but he is much bigger than all the other kids.  My mother says it’s because he comes from large stock but I say it’s because he’s been in the fourth grade longer than the schoolhouse has been standing.  I didn’t want to fight him on account my daddy would make my backside burn for getting into another scuffle but Billy had been asking for it for a long time.  He was always staring at me and making these clucking sounds, saying that I strutted around like a peacock showing off my feathers.  Mostly I can ignore him but on that day I just couldn’t watch his plump lips spray spit into the air as he clucked and cackled.  I didn’t even notice that my hand had clenched into a tight ball and left my side until I saw it make contact with Billy’s left cheek.

My next recollection was of Billy’s meaty hand wrapped around my neck and the other one tangled in my hair as the two of us lay in the dirt struggling.  It was a strong fight.  Billy brawled hard for his pride and I wrestled to make the fight worth the punishment.  A winner was never really determined because a teacher pulled us apart before there was a mass of purple bruises and dried blood, but I showed Billy Hawkin and anyone else around that a peacock can fight like a banty rooster when their feathers get fluffed.  And even if I didn’t prove that, the teasing stopped since Billy’s lip was so swollen that his clucks became slurps.  

My victory really came from impressing my older brother Denny who still tells the story to people, providing the details and exaggerating the wounds.  Denny is my constant defender even to my other brother Caul who takes every chance to find some fault in me.  My daddy says that’s the way it is with brothers, one has to protect you and the other one has to toughen you up a bit so you don’t get so spoiled.  I guess the jobs got decided by Denny thinking that I was his baby for a long time.  My mother said that she finally had to have a talk with him about not tending to me so much because it was unnatural for a young growing boy to be so attached.  I suppose she was worried that he would go through the rest of his life with my bassinet hooked to his belt loop.

She was able to stop him from carrying me on his hip but she couldn’t stop me from being attached to it.  I have been Denny’s shadow since I could walk, following and imitating him.  I don’t have to work hard to prove myself to him.  It’s easy to love Denny because he loves me so much.  Caul, on the other hand, has always been my rival.  I think it’s because he was the youngest in the family until I, in the form of a small ruddy and wrinkled bundle, took over the position.  And, in my opinion, Caul has been trying ever since to get that position back by making me appear unfit for it.

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