I suppose we are engaged. That’s what the ring meant, though he didn’t ask, and I didn’t answer. The only thing I answered was the ad. I’m not the first one to wear it. The ring has already been worn, of course. I wait for the preacher to ride up, his tall shadow to join our hands, pronounce us.
So far there hasn’t been a preacher or a dress or even a veil. He just said, “Here,” and put the ring on my finger. No room in this tiny cabin for separate beds anyway.
There are a woman’s touches everywhere. Careful crocheted lace doilies that seem out of place in the harsh dry yellow that surrounds us. Out of place in the oven wind and all that dust and sweat. Now she’s just a nameless cross out back silently haunting the horizon.
He doesn’t ever say her name, and it’s not writ on the cross. Not even a thin carved line from a pocketknife. I don’t think that’s proper. That her name is dust along with her bones under all that dry ground.
I imagine the preacher standing out back before there was a cross, holding their hands together in an eternity of sky and land. Pronouncing them forever. Then later his tall lean shadow throwing out the first clumps of dirt. “Lord, we commit our beloved sister’s body to the ground.” I can see the preacher. I can just see him. And I wait for him to ride up.
The ad didn’t say there hadn’t been a drop of rain these past thirteen months. Didn’t say the stalks of corn hadn’t bothered to grow more than a few inches. Didn’t say anything about no clouds in the day-after-day sky. Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed in the shadowy hallway of the boarding house. Taken my chances in dark alleys.
The ring pinches at first. Gets in the way of everything I have to do. Sometimes I want to pry it off just to rest my finger, but I don’t.
Sometimes I have foolish thoughts when the moon is big and unblinking in the window and my tongue so swollen with thirst I can’t even swallow. Sometimes I think all that dust and no clouds is because she doesn’t want me here. She doesn’t want me wearing her ring.
Then I think maybe she just wants us to say her name. I won’t ask him so I try to guess it. Say it out loud while I sweep and dust and pull up muddy water from the well.
Wolves start circling in the moonlight, offering up their throaty howls. We stay up watching them through the glassless window. He’s got the shovel resting by the door just in case they try to get in.
About a week before, he’d come back with the neighbor’s horse. Said they all lay dead two miles south. The curtains in the windows kept blowing in the hot wind like they were still working, like they still had a job to do though nobody’s there to do it for anymore. So he took the horse. Wasn’t anything else worth taking. I look for the confession of blood on his hands. I find none.
The ring is starting to slip around on my finger, and I have to clench my hand into a constant fist to keep it from slipping off. To keep it worn by me.
Wolves get the horse three nights later.
And I watch for the preacher to ride up in a long black coat and black Bible clutched in his old cracked hands to pronounce us.
The dust beats against us, peeling back our skin, tearing away at everything. It comes out in handfuls from my hair. It sticks in the damp on my forehead. It sits in my dry mouth. There’s no more spit to spit it out. I wouldn’t give up those precious drops anyway. I’d swallow all that dust down first.
“Those curtains were all tattered,” he said. “Like something clawed its way in. That whole place looked like a cast-off ship at sea. Crew dead inside.” And all I can think is that if it was a ship, we’d be on the blue ocean and how I would drink it up if I could. All I can think is the tossing moving waves and all that water. All that water.
I weed the garden every day. My skin is red, my lips blistered. There never are weeds. There’s nothing to pull. There’s nothing to hold onto, it just moves out of the way when you touch it. Finally I pull up the papery corn stalks that stopped growing a long time ago. I pull them up and they dissolve in my hands.
Soon everything belongs to those names. The stunted corn that withered to brown paper, rattling in the wind.
The airless sky that won’t swell, won’t pour down rain.
The well where the water we pull up is thicker, muddier, drier each day.
I say them as if she is the answer to it all.
She is the reason.
I keep them on my lips in a constant prayer. I say them out loud in the dry moonlight. And I look out at that little nameless cross that seems bigger in the window.
I grab a knife. March out back. Carve a thin spider web. The wood splinters under the bladed letters.
Wife, it says when I’m finished. Maybe that will make her happy.
I wait from sunrise to moonfall. I wait for clouds. Clench the ring against my fist. Watch the shimmering horizon for the black speck of the preacher.
Finally I say, “He’s not coming, is he? The preacher I mean.”
He won’t even look at me. Shakes his head. The preacher’s not coming and the rain’s not coming. We’re on our own. And I think I know why.
The wolves come back. In the moonlight I see their scanty forms. They look as hollowed out as I feel. They don’t even howl. They just circle quiet like. Sometimes turn their noses up like they would howl if they could.
He doesn’t even get up. He’s been in the bed two days. His breathing deep and troubled with a long pause in between.
“I know what you want,” I say to that cross that sits in the window day after ever loving day, watching us through no rain moons and no rain suns, getting bigger all the time. I say it until I’m like the wolves, until there’s no more voice to say it with.
I know what you want.
I whisper the names again, all night long while I watch those silent wolves. Victoria Louise Elizabeth Eva Rose Charlotte Ida Jessie Hazel Poppy Clementine Lula Pearl Josephine Delilah.
In the daylight, his breath is barely a flicker of movement at his throat. I can’t even hear it anymore.
That night I think I see the flash of something I haven’t seen in a long time. I think I hear something real low like. A growl that isn’t coming from any human thing. Coming from the night itself. But it’s too late for me to hope.
I imagine the preacher riding up now, his long demon coat trailing out behind him in the wind. Whipping his horse into a full-on gallop. Coming to pronounce us or bury us, I don’t know which yet.
He’s coming, though. I can feel it.
I unclench my fist. The ring slides easily over the curve of bone that wasn’t there a week ago. Like I’m only bone now. I’m what she is below all that thirsty ground. The wolves haven’t even bothered to come back for us.
But the preacher.
I hear those hooves thundering against the night. And those flashes and that low growl are getting closer.
I don’t have much time. I grab the shovel by the door. Out the window, that silent cross fills the whole horizon.
I know what I have to do.
The shovel goes easy into the dirt. I’m holding onto it and the ring all at once. Shoveling and saying those names.
Tonight I’ll put that ring back on her finger. Fold her hands into a prayer for us all.
|Linda Niehoff loves ghost stories, severe weather, and is an accidental collector of vintage cameras. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @lindaniehoff.|