From Spider In A Tree
By SUSAN STINSON
Elisha Hawley turned nine years old six weeks after his father had laid violent hands on himself and cut his own throat. Rebekah, Elisha’s mother, made apple flummey seasoned with cinnamon and ginger for breakfast and let him have the last of the bacon with pea soup for supper. She made doughnuts, despite the heat, and let him lead the evening prayer, even though his older brother Joseph mouthed a silent gobble gobble gobble as Elisha stammered over the verse. Life was rising as loss burrowed in. Elisha wanted to snicker at Joseph, or weep with relief that his brother was trying to be funny, but he swallowed all that and sounded out the scripture more loudly, evenabomination, which he didn’t know how to say. Rebekah fixed her eyes on Joseph as Elisha mangled the vowels, then gave them each half a doughnut and a sip of cider before bed.
Rebekah had scrubbed the blood stain from the floor of the parlor with sand the boys had hauled in buckets from the river. She had the bed moved to one of the chambers above stairs. She hired a boatman to arrange for deliveries to the store and bartered with the Hunts for time from their man Joab to cut firewood for winter and work in the fields. She never wept within the curtains of the bed, at least not so that Elisha could hear. She had written a prayer bid requesting that God sanctify the mighty blow of his rod at the loss of her husband to the saving of her soul, adding that her sons desired the same. The Reverend Mr. Edwards had read it aloud in a trembling voice to silence in the congregation.
Her sons, plus Joab and the Pomeroys (who were neighbors), had helped Rebekah attach a buttery to the north side of the house on Pudding Lane. She made a deal with Mrs. Pomeroy and Mrs. Hunt to combine a share of the milk from their cows, so that she had enough to make cheese.
She spent hours straining milk, skimming cream, and scalding the milk pails. The tasks were urgent and her absorption complete. It was too hot that summer to keep butter long, but her four-meal cheeses sold well, and sometimes she added sage or garlic or dill. Her clothes carried the faintly sour smell of whey. She turned the ripening cheeses twice a day, without fail, polishing them with butter and red annatto. Rubbing them in the small, cool room, she wept. Elisha tried to keep far from the house when his mother turned the cheese.
On the night of his birthday, after Joseph had climbed the steep stairs to the attic, Elisha could hear his mother snoring, the sound muffled by the hangings, but familiar, deep and sad. He remembered sleeping in the trundle bed under his parents’ bedstead in the parlor, before he had grown too big to fit in it and they had sent him to the cot in the kitchen. The trundle had been comforting, close and dark with a soft edge of light from the banked fire flickering under the bed curtains. His father had kicked and turned above him while his mother had breathed in stuttering rasps. The motions of their bodies had seemed as inescapable as the movement of the heavens, dust and feathers drifting from their bedding to make his nose itch as he had lain enclosed and content in the dark.
Lying sleepless in bed was something everyone said had helped bring his father to his death. Elisha knew that the coroner’s inquest had judged him to have been delirious. He had heard Mr. Edwards say that his father had been past a capacity of receiving advice or being reasoned with, that there had been the urgent, harsh voice of a demon in his ear, as insistent and repetitive as the call of a crow, saying, “Do it, do it now, now, NOW.”
Elisha wished that Mr. Edwards would shut up about his father, and about everything else, too. He started breathing hard, drawn into sleep, fighting the night terrors that had been coming ever since his father’s death. He heard the sound of his father grinding the knife. Had he heard it that night? He couldn’t be sure. He heard it now – steel on stone, or teeth gnashing themselves down to nubs – then saw his father gasping and bleeding on the parlor floor. He woke with his fist in his mouth, biting down. He hadn’t broken the skin, but it was covered with spit. He wiped it dry on the bedclothes, then got up and pulled on his clothes.
He slipped out the kitchen door. He didn’t take a lantern and Rebekah wouldn’t let him touch the gun. He had a new knife from Joseph, made out of a hammered nail and sharpened on the whetstone in the barn until it shone. It gave him confidence. Awake, he was a bold boy.
He took the road to the river, which he knew well enough to walk easily in the starry dark. He headed away from the ferry crossing near the tavern, where men might be lingering even past the bell for nine o’clock curfew, and left the road to skirt the watering spot where people brought their livestock and which was sometimes patrolled by the night watch. He followed an old path he knew across a field toward the river.
He tripped over a root and stumbled over a few stones, but mostly he was quiet and careful as he walked. He had grown up on the story of his mother’s brother, Colonel John Stoddard, who had leapt from a second story window when the Abenaki raided Deerfield, and ran barefoot across the snow all the way to Hatfield for help, which arrived much too late.
Elisha admired Colonel Stoddard, who had let him hold his gold watch at the meal after his father’s funeral. A watch like that had never been seen in Northampton, and the colonel had been trying to be kind, even if he had muttered something about mortal life and time that had reminded Elisha of the verse for the letter Y in his old primer, the one about youth illustrated with a skeleton. Elisha very much respected his uncle, military hero that he was, but he had sometimes wondered if it might have been braver to use the stairs and put up a fight while the slave woman and the baby were killed. He couldn’t imagine fighting raiders barefoot, though, and had no doubt that the colonel would have risked a battle axe to the head if he had bent down to buckle his shoes. This didn’t seem to bother anyone except Elisha. The flauntish way his daughters dressed occasioned more talk. Elisha thought that the key to the colonel’s situation would have been tall boots, easy to pull on and suitable for snow, if worse came to worse. Better than that would have been a horse, but, in his uncle’s place, Elisha would have settled for boots.
Elisha wasn’t worried about Indians. He knew plenty of Abenaki like Mary Stockbridge, who was friendly enough, if overly inclined to mess with his hair. He did have a plan in case he encountered wolves or bears. If he heard wolves nearby, he would climb a tree. If he heard thrashing like a bear or a moose, he would hide.
Elisha was nine tonight, thrice three, and Christ had been thirty-three when he died to human life. Joseph had brought that up, trying to lend a tone of solemnity and provide moral direction, as he was prone to do when he wasn’t making fun of his brother, but Elisha ignored him. Joseph didn’t know as much about what was right as he thought he did.
At the fast day after his father’s death, Mr. Edwards had said that God had spit in the face of the people in the town. Their faces. His face. Elisha, who had been numbly sucking on a piece of hard cheese that his brother had slipped him, bit it in two when he heard that. Mrs. Edwards had looked at him then, and he thought that she might have seen him chewing, breaking the fast, but all she had done was gaze at him. He had not swallowed until she looked away.
After the fast, she had sent the Edwards’s slave, Leah, to their house with a basket full of bread and chess pie. They had plenty of food. He had made Leah leave before his mother saw the basket. “Eat it in the woods,” he had said. “Nobody will know.”
She had looked at him silently, but had taken the basket away.
It made him angry. If all of the saving, praying and meeting in this God-addled town had left it dripping with God’s spittle while his father’s soul fled barefoot into a field of cold devils, then Elisha, half consumed with anger and night terrors, wanted to prepare in more practical ways against the dangers of the world. He wasn’t sure how to do it, but had decided to start with the thick, quavering dark.
Looking up at the stars with the vague intention of using them to fix his own location and direction, Elisha thought again about the darkness of the trundle. He felt much less frightened now crossing the field than he did every night in his cot. If he had still been sleeping beneath his parents’ bed, he might have been able to grab his father’s ankles in time to fight off the devils by reciting Psalms, some of which he would have remembered right all the way through, if he had to, he was sure. At the very least, he had the Lord’s Prayer and the recitations from his primer that his teacher, Dr. Mather, who also treated the sick, had drummed into his head. He whispered some now:
In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.
Thy Life to mend
This Book attend.
The Cat doth play
And after slay.
The Dog will bite
A Thief at Night.
Elisha reminded himself to watch out for the Pomeroys’ hunting dogs, who might not know him if they couldn’t see him. He could hear the river, and soon had reached its edge. The sound of it running made him feel, for the first time since he had left the house, a little frightened.
He felt for a bit of bare dirt, then sat down to take off his shoes and stockings. Poison ivy grew at spots along the bank, and he didn’t want to sit in a patch. He had been at the river at night to hunt eels with Joseph and Eben Pomeroy, but they had brought torches and dogs. As his lone state struck him, he got a flash in the dark of his father struggling on the parlor floor, then felt a sudden sting of pain. Mosquitoes were biting his feet.
Slapping away bugs and fear, he unbuckled his breeches, stepped out of them, and pulled his long shirt off over his head. Pale, harried by bites, and determined to test his own mettle, he moved to the edge of the bank and slid slowly into the water.
The cold was a shock on such a hot night, and he wondered if he were being leached of vital humours as he caught a few thrashing breaths. He grabbed hold of a root in the side of a bank and tried to wriggle like an eel to stay afloat. He found himself on his back, waving one hand in the water as if it were a fin, his legs hanging loosely, bent at the knee. He hovered there, suspended, a husk of a body held and jostled by the river. He wanted more than anything to let go of the root and float with the current as far as the river might go.
It was the thought of getting home after the drift that held him back. Mosquitoes were still circling his head. He shook it violently, but the one settled in his hair didn’t budge. He couldn’t face the prospect of a walk naked to the mosquitoes, stumbling through poison ivy, nettles and rocks, trying to find his clothes again in the dark. He cast a more fully empathetic thought toward Colonel Stoddard in the fields of snow, then held his breath and let his face go under to clear off the mosquitoes.
Elisha never rested in the water, but clung to his slippery root for a good length of time, working his free arm to stay afloat. He let himself think about the things that might be near him in the river, the shad that could be wavering past his legs with their cold eyes and active little mouths. Joseph had caught a snapping turtle in the Mill River that bit through a branch as thick as Elisha’s neck. The eels had their own jaws and slithering ways, and he could hear a constant, hushed crackling in the trees and grasses that might hide anything, of this earth or beyond, coming to the water to drink or feed.
He flipped on his stomach and held the root with both hands. For a moment, he thought he felt it writhing, and wondered if serpents lived in the bank. Still, he didn’t let go.
He was good and scared now of whatever might be in the water, but he was also full of fight. He drew his knees in toward his chest and kicked one leg out behind him again and again, like a donkey breaking a fence or a dog scratching the air in the middle of a terrible dream. His heel broke the surface in loud, foolish splashes. Elisha’s grandfather Hawley had been gored by an ox, his father had cut himself out of his body, but Elisha had left his own knife on the bank. He wanted to be braver and tougher than either of them, but when a small, dark shape flew low above him, he panicked and pulled hard on the root, scrabbling with his naked feet and grabbing the lip of grass and dirt to haul himself back onto the prickly bank.
By the third time the shape passed above him, he knew it was a bat, not a ghost. It flew swift and close to eat the swarming insects that had been dipping into him as if he were a river of their own. He grabbed his shirt and pulled it over his head, his heart pounding with the strange pleasures of leaving the river, of having gone into it, of having gone out in the night, of breaking curfew despite laws and hard preaching. His mother was a widow. He was one of two fatherless sons, but he was determined to ready himself for an unexpectedly happy life.
He lay back in the grass, waving his feet in the air to dry them before he put his stockings on. The stars clustered and thickened above him, every crease of darkness pinched and leaking light. His shirt was long enough to cover most of his legs and he swatted his long stockings in the air as a tribute to the mosquitoes. He felt sanctified, as the prayer bids always asked. He was thudding with it. He kept seeing stars rush a ways and then go out above him. He knew he should be remarking their number and location in case they might be portents, but all he did was let his feet drop to the ground in time with one thick, bright, distant fall.
He had almost forgotten himself enough to begin to drift to sleep when he heard a strange slapping on the water. He lay still among the grasses, thinking. Bear. Fishing. Am I hidden? Hide.
The sound was quiet and rhythmic, distinct above the river’s current, unmistakably approaching from upstream. He hoped it was a beaver or some other creature of the river that could do him no harm on firm ground. Moving slowly, he drew on his stockings and breeches, fastening the garters, and located his shoes. He had tucked his knife inside them, since Joseph hadn’t given him a sheath. Now he took it in his hands and crawled to the edge of the water.
At first he saw nothing but the river, which took shape from its smell and the sound of lapping as much as from any glints of light. He knew where it was and how it went and so found suggestions of its edges even in the moonless dark. The mysterious slapping became another shape of sound. He trembled as he began to see the lines of a garment in the water, and soon he could catch the motion of a swimmer’s dark, reaching arms.
Elisha knew that devils roamed both the earth and the waters, hunting human souls, and that the ground itself might bleed where a murderer walked. He suspected that his father’s death had been violence enough to excite monsters and marvels, although possibly not this far from the house. He endured the hungry mosquitoes covering his neck without moving or flinching. When a prayer started to rise, it didn’t come from him.
The swimmer in the river was chanting in a woman’s voice, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed.
Elisha couldn’t have been more astonished if his knife had started to preach in his hand. Would a devil pray? He dropped the knife and gripped the dirt, caught with the wild fear that the figure in the river was his mother, chasing him with prayers. The voice that was not at all his mother’s was very near him, saying what he thought was a Psalm.
“Deliver me, oh my God, out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man.”
He heard her pass him, then stop and clamber out onto the bank. He held himself low and still as he heard her strike a flint, and stared through the flash as the Edwards’s servant Leah stood on the river bank in her wet shift, cupping her hand over a lit pine knot as she reached into a hollow and brought out a hidden pair of shoes. Was she a witch? He had heard old stories about witches and water, but he had seen her swimming the same as him, only farther and better. Maybe she was a runaway. There were ads about escaped slaves in the Boston paper all the time. If he had been standing, he might have stepped forward, but he stayed on his belly in the dirt.
She never saw him as she put on her shoes, doused the light and began to walk back toward town, murmuring the Ten Commandments as if she were a pious white mother seated in a parlor with a child to teach upon her lap. Walking to town was not running away. He watched her go.
A small bug with a hard carapace and threadlike legs crawled the length of Elisha’s arm, indifferent to swimmers and prayers. It followed his shoulders to the loose neck of his shirt, skirted the feeding mosquitoes with its solemn, methodical pace to take a meditative position, shining back aslant, in the hidden, scaly region behind Elisha’s unwashed ear. It clung there, vertical to the ground, and preached as the boy waited, unhearing but affected, until he thought he was alone in the night:
You killed a mosquito when it was sluggish and sated with your blood, then washed the stain in the river without ever knowing it was there. You want a life of adventure? Dip yourself in the wet from the fresh crushed belly of a mosquito.
Mourning is crisp enough to eat like a leaf. Let the birds have the berries and chew where you are, boy. I who thought to leave my hungers now do little but gnaw. It’s a short life, and anything that walks in sap has understood the adhesions of sweetness.
Elisha groped for his own shoes, then began the long walk home, the bug still clinging to his head.
I won’t lay eggs to split and wriggle in your ear. I’m wishing vigor to you and the larvae, both. Insect wishes whir and crack under everything. I might have kissed you that morning and left my breast bone whole, but I was so intent on carving the world into an eternal meal that I had nothing to offer you, then.
I’m riding you so lightly. My feet taste your skin. I won’t get greedy and scuttle. You might feel me, and that’s not a thing I can afford to want. Still, I’ll crawl a little higher, into the fine streets and bridges of your hair. A mosquito will keep biting under water, even as it drowns. Am I saved? Are you? You smell of the river.
When he got back to the house on Pudding Lane, Elisha paused, sobbing now, before the kitchen door. He scratched his head, fingers brushing against the bug, which opened its armored back in buzzing flight.
Susan Stinson is the author of three novels. In 2011, she was awarded the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize from the Lambda Literary Foundation. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Early American Studies, and Necessary Fiction. Video of Stinson reading from Spider in a tree, her novel-in-progress excerpted in Issue 02, can be found on the website of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale. Currently Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she can be found online at http://susanstinson.net/.