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A Bag Full of Blond Hair

We found a bag full of blond hair with some pieces of scalp under the porch and I thought of you. I remember you lying in the sun, your back open to the breezes and your top undone, the summer browning you until you were indistinguishable from the wooden railing, or at least that's what you claimed. I remember how your smoky hair shook when you lit a match on your jeans in one stroke and used its sudden glare to see what was in the bottles in the basement. We'd gone to look for a ball you told me, but had grown distracted by the brown dust-covered bottles, their fleshy organ contents only reluctantly shaken from the murky spinal fluid that housed them.

It was you who suggested that we open the bottle in the back, its rusty lid stained with an impossibly old date, from before the house had been built. We pried at the rusty cover, and shook it until the fluid darkened, but it was only when the bottle was smashed on the floor that we could see what it hid. We leapt the cellar steps two at a time, quiet so no one would know it had been us. Barely holding in our cries, gasping in the attempt, we tried to ignore how the palpitating tumour on the floor was too liquefied for our memories. I mentioned it to you years later, and you looked away and told me another story, one where the bottle remained on the shelf, or had exposed the faded strawberries of antique preserves, wizened beans.

It was the workers who found it, when they were removing the last porch in the neighbourhood. Our neighbours had already updated their house's appearance if not the contents. Ours was the last house to move from canning to the freezer, from the dark glass to the ice and shrivelled remains that only a label could describe enough to make it into a dinner. We had long since made the move to refrigeration, and we were tearing off the veranda now that the TV had ensured that summer nights were spent in the seventies decorated living room. There you and I had uncomfortably sat on the orange couch, whose cover had only recently been removed, and trailed our bare feet along the interlocking pattern of the preserved carpet.

The shingles of the roof came away easily enough. Their scale-like covering meant that they were caught one under the other, but they splintered easily under the violent thrusts of the round-pointed shovel. I stood below and watched the showering cedar shakes, dark underneath where tarpaper and their age had stained the countless years into the grain of the wood, where insects had hid only to discover too late that they had crept too far and been caught. Unable to turn or reverse, their perfect hideaway had changed beneath them into a tomb awaiting the pick and shovel of the archaeologist carpenter. They laughed as they worked, Garbage Geary and his idiot son from up the road, and I laughed too, to remember the name that you'd given them and how that name had stuck to them like a tarpaper stain.

When the roof boards began to follow the shingles and fell in the dusty pile at my feet, a heap impossibly small for what the porch had been, no one was laughing anymore. I lifted lemon water, an offering of a kind, to the blackened hands that reached down from the sky. I looked at the tracks of insects which had long since passed from the world where they had gnawed their dusty tracks through and over the boards.

Some of the wood was so weak you could put your hand through it, and when the rafters followed, tiny carcasses spilled from the holes. Dead long before any of us, and hidden in the cracks between the ceiling and the roof, they were exposed at last and fell. With a centuries old collapse, what was left of the veranda's structure, held together by insect carapaces and honeycombed wood, tumbled into a dusty angular sculpture.

When we watched the barn fall together, all those years ago, held back by those who feared we would throw ourselves into the rubble, you told me that all life passed this way and I never forgot what you said. Growth was not just that of plants and animals, you claimed, but rather buildings also began fresh like the uncurled poplar leaves in the spring, only to swell into the full silver dollars of midsummer. They ended the gnawed remains of sticks by fall, their delicate filigree of veins and knotted deformities falling into dust. The horror of the image took my mind, and when we crept later into the fallen ruin of the barn to find the treasures you said were there, I watched your back. I didn't quite believe that you could see what was impossible to others, and I was unable to believe that you couldn't.

It was late afternoon when the last of the timbering that held the roof was thrown to the ground and lay there writhing. Garbage Geary and his idiot son rested. I still use your names for them in my head, although I avoided speaking to them when they asked me about you. They never cared before, and even now, so many years later, their dirty fingers reach out so that they might soil your memory, touch whatever is left of your preserves, your mason jar, there on your dusty shelf. I shook my head and looked away, wishing I could defend you this final time, but unable to, just as I'd always been unable.

I assigned myself the task of clearing away the debris from the porch, quite without consulting anyone else, so I had to work in close proximity to the two uneasy not-quite humans. I had to hear their lungs labouring to filter the dust of the fallen porch from the humid air of midsummer, had to smell their underarms and boots, and listen to their curses.

When they returned from wherever it was that people like them went for lunch, the graveyard too old for a recent snack, and the slaughterhouse having closed many years before, I had already piled the stacks of crumbling lumber to one side. My hands were dusty with wood gnawings and my back hurt with the unaccustomed strain. I rested as well, once they had gone, by sitting on the still intact floor where you and I had worn a smooth path under the swing with our bare feet. I sat there, you just below me, the light slanting through the cracked boards now that the roof was gone.

The shingles caught fire quickly and I shrugged off the permit that Garbage Geary said I needed in order to burn in the yard. I heaped up the tarpaper that crackled with its ancient load of oil wrung from those who had died many millions of years ago. You and I had pored through the book on dinosaurs from school, but it was you who skipped past the gradual pressing of oil and coal to flip to the huge centrefold of hundreds of plants and animals. It was you who pointed out the shrew-like mammals waiting in the wings for their clumsy cousins to stumble over rat holes, their bones crack loud in the still forest. You told me about the mammal's future. Their early planning blossoming from niche to niche, until the giants, grumbling and cursing, had been driven back into the swamps and deserts from which they had come. In the golden sun of later afternoons I looked through that book again, listened to your stories, and both believed and didn't believe, afraid to look stupid and unable to look smart.

They told me to ignore what you said, even as you whispered about how the giants were still waiting. Impatient in the swamp, the dispossessed had lingered all these years for us to slip. They waited to climb the Chain of Being the teacher had convinced you was like a ladder, only needing one claw hooked into the bottom rung to advance, only needing some room at the top.

They said things about you that I never repeated, although I sometimes suspected you knew. They said the upstairs floor was littered with fly wings. That there were delicate frog bones under certain flat stones near the pond, stones I would not lift. Fantasy kittens were yanked out of conjecture and made to die again, and they pointed significantly to the sawn limb on the maple. I refused to talk about you and as they grew more shrill I grew more silent, the broken limb still beside me, careless of the piles of kitten bones. In this way I was faithful, communicating only with you, and that secretly, by scraping my fingernails along the floor and then along my arms and legs.

You spoke to me of famous people in history, Helen Keller, who single-handedly freed the slaves, Thomas Edison, the man who invented the pencil but had no idea how to use it, and Newton, historical baker of my favourite snack. School was merely supplemental, you taught me. I forgot how to read the corrupted lines of text in favour of the grain of wood in a kitchen chair made by the tree's silent wish to talk, lines of memory and regret.

Garbage Geary began to tear up the boards with his shovel, seemingly unable to work without that violent implement in his hands, of maybe knowing he'd need it later. The boards splintered and the square nails holding them to the beams shrieked, like pensioners hauled off to rot in nursing homes. They cried to be torn up with so little ceremony after their century of service. Garbage Geary didn't see, but his idiot son pocketed as many of the nails as he could get into his torn jeans and they bled rust over the outside of his pants. Where he sat he left marks, and his fingers were streaked with corroded metal and splinters, since he was less coordinated than his brutish father.

The boards fought against the intrusion, so it was nearly evening when the last board was removed and I placed it neatly on the stack of ash that had once been shingles and roofing. The porch was disappearing, just as if it had never been there, the only sign of its presence visible from the road a huge handprint of absence marring the paint. Into the gap it would sag, would devalue the house, until the old timbering relinquished its hold and slipped into the basement, just like the Tyler Roach place where you and I would go on summer evenings.

Sunlit in Tyler Roach's cellar you scared a snake from the wall, pulled up an ancient green bottle, miraculously preserved when the rest of the house was ruins and rot. There you told me about Tyler's insane sister. She wore a heavy coat in the heat of summer, you whispered, and paced until a deep trail was worn into the turf between the house and the pond. She was as big as a man, you told me, and you imitated her voice in a way that was supposed to be funny, but made me shiver in the failing sun. You traced the worn pathway that had appeared with your story and bulked up large, suddenly, in the browns and greens of twilight, Tyler's sister come back bundled in a heavy winter coat. You ran after me all the way and when no one else at home could comfort me it was you who took me in your arms. You told me about how people pinched off the heads of flowers so that they couldn't sing their ribald songs. You distracted me into sleep.

When the timbers were yanked away from the house, the grip of the spikes defying even the bruising hands of Garbage Geary and his crowbar, I saw the idiot son begin to gesture. I thought to stifle his yell, to push tarpaper and shingle ash, boards and beams, down his flickering liquid mouth until he was still. Then he would let what he'd seen rest. Just like you had slept all these years, nestled in close to the foundation but lit by the evening sun, which peered under the porch occasionally to see if you were still there. I turned towards the ash pile but my heart wasn't in it, and when Garbage Geary began his dull-minded questioning I glanced back, unable to look away now that the light was finally on the ground under the porch. Just as an insect might dream of a crack in which to spend the cold winter, I had crawled into the splits and twists of grain that were my path, putting no thought into how I was to get out, caught as I was by my own need and desire.

Under the porch, weeds never grew and dogs refused to go there even on the hottest days. The ground permanently had the look of recent disturbance, although Garbage Geary and his idiot son's shuffling had stirred the soil and lifted from it a shriek louder than a pulled spike.

Having lain all these years so quietly, with your stories and calls lost to the creaks of the boards and timbers of an old house settling on a winter night, having been so patient, like a kernel of grain from a pharaoh's tomb waiting out the centuries for moisture to sprout, you were yelling now. Even from the gate I could hear you, even from the far side of the road I could feel your tickling fingers and your sudden laugh. From the woods near the field you were quieter, waiting to see which direction I might go. You wondered if I would run all the way to the river where I had often thought to go, where the train still comes through in the morning, a horn passing from one side of my head to the other.

I looked back one last time to see Garbage Geary and his idiot son crouched over the hole by the foundation. They looked intent, as though the secret language of your bones, scrambled as they were by the frequent stirring of the dirt, could be read by them. Then I turned to face what you had once called the dark woods. There are old men in those woods, you'd told me, waiting in the gloom with thick hands like turnips. If they catch you alone they will hold you, plant you in the shade and water you like a mushroom. But with your voice finally free to follow me, I ducked under the thick mat of the first spruce, heading vaguely in the direction of the train whistle.


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