She wakes from her sleep, restless as always. Her head pounds as she props her strong body up off of her creaky, homespun mattress. She feels woozy. Off-centred. Dizzy even. She feels downright odd. The same way she always feels when the sun rises over the dry little town she and her Pa call home sweet home. She runs her unkempt, dirt-stained fingernails along the wood-slatted walls of the room she calls her own. The familiar scent of the sweet smellin’ wood calms her. It reminds her who she is.
She reaches the small, beat-up wooden chest flankin’ her creaky bed and already somethin’ inside of her aches. It aches real bad. Bad enough to make her nearly double over. Strong as she is, though, she pushes the agony deep inside. She hopes it will just leave her alone. Forever.
Standin’ in her sweat-soaked, used-to-be pure white nightie, she lifts open the heavy lid of the beaten chest and stares inside. Her pale mauve dress made of Lindsey-woolsey sits on top, just where her Pa made her put it the day before. She sighs, knowin’ she is goin’ to face a mighty sticky day. A day she’s been dreadin’ for quite some time...
Pa stands in the main room of their small yet cozy cabin, cookin’ the strips of pig Viburnie loves to eat for her mornin’ provisions. He holds them carefully in a cast-iron skillet that’s seen better days over the hot hearthen fire, watchin’ the strips crackle and bubble as the sweet grease crisps them to perfection. The aroma of the cracklin’ pig strips wafts over to Viburnie’s room real quickly.
But, she’s not there to smell it.
Her small, make-shift, greased-paper window, the one her Pa made to satisfy her constant need for fresh, clean air is open. Open all the way. No trace of sweet Viburnie...
Behind their small wooden cabin dottin’ the dry, sparsely treed landscape, stands Viburnie. That’s what her Pa and everyone she knows calls her, anyway. She stares at her reflection in the bubblin’ stream. The only source of drinkable water in their little town in the middle of nowhere. The swelterin’ heat pours over her body as she frantically tightens her damn corset that pinches at her breasts in a way that makes her want to scream. She pulls at her unmentionables, trying to make them less snug, as she stares at her ripplin’ image.
The deep blue of her big eyes, the deepest of all blues sparkles nearly black in the reflected image starin’ back at her. Her jet black hair, shiny as the night sky, glistens in the bubblin’ stream. Her pale skin, white as a sheet, and smooth as silk appears sickly and sweet. Her lips, the palest of pink, pout stubbornly as a naggin’ question picks at her brain. Once again.
“Who am I?” she asks hesitantly, her voice tremblin’ with a thick southern accent. Her words float into the clear blue sky, siftin’ into the stale, hot air. No one hears her. Not-a-one.
“Who am I?” she repeats full well knowin’ that no one will answer.
But somethin’ does.
“You are Viburnie, silly,” her reflected image chirps with an almost unnatural grin. A grin that’s too wide.
A grin that don’t mirror her own.
Shocked at the impossible speak of her reflection in the bubblin’ stream, Viburnie begins to breathe real heavily. She feels as if her chest is ’bout to explode. Or implode... She’s not sure. Her heavin’ bosom, heavy as a lead weight, makes her bare-skinned legs buckle. She teeters between fallin’ and not fallin’ as her reflection stares at her with a much-to-wide grin.
Viburnie closes her big eyes of deepest blue just for a moment. She tries her best to calm herself. Pa needs her. ’specially on today of all damn days, she tells herself. She can’t let him down.
Her heavin’ stops. She accepts the impossible. She tells herself that maybe she’s hallucinatin’ like the drunkards do. Only, she’s never touched a drop of liquor in her sweet, short life. She puts her foot down, stompin’ her riding boot real hard on the dry, sandy soil, her unforgivin’ manner coming right back.
“That’s what my Pa calls me,” she mutters, not knowin’ if the crazy reflection can even hear her. Or wants to hear her...
“Good girl,” her reflection mouths, with an odd cadence to its voice. “You are your Pa’s daughter. At least, that’s what he tells you...” Her reflection trails off, its heavy words buzzin’ in Viburnie’s ears like a hornet on a baking hot day.
Viburnie scratches her head, sweat buildin’ at her crown of thick, jet-black hair. She pinches her cheeks real hard just to make sure she’s not sleep-walkin’ as she does on occasion, and screws up her nerve.
“What do you mean that’s what he tells me?” she asks, her small, muscular frame shakin’ from head to toe.
Her lifeless reflection appears to ponder her words. An impossibility. Viburnie knows it can’t be real. Or can it?
She waits and waits, impatiently stompin’ her riding boots on the arid soil, her unmentionables the only things coverin’ her naked, tremblin’ body. But, nothin’ happens. Her reflection don’t answer her. It glares at her half-naked body with its all-too-wide smile, its pale pink lips hauntin’ her. The temptin’ smell of crisp pork strips wafts over to where she stands, its intoxicatin’ stench of grease and fat toyin’ with her mind. She can’t wait no more.
She changes her approach. She decides to be more direct. Chet always says she’s the most direct young thing he ever knew, and so that’s what she’s goin’ to continue to be.
“Why does Pa call me Viburnie?” she quips, her strong, calloused hands now on her narrow hips.
“Cause you aren’t, silly,” her reflection utters, its voice piercin’ throughout her body, like knives puncturing her vital organs. Her heart thumps erratically at the painful, impossible words. Her limbs vibrate spasmodic’lly as the words she dreads most sink into her mediocre brain.
Stunned, she watches her reflection rip apart in the bubblin’ stream, until it is no longer there. At all. The clear blue sky without a cloud in its midst, darkens right before her deepest of blue eyes. Darkens as deep black as the night sky. Her eyes lock onto the inexplicable night sky above her. The night sky that twinkles with points of light as far as she can see.
All of a sudden, the scorchin’ dry earth beneath her riding boots begins to shake violently. Without making a sound. It spasms quietly, so quietly you could hear a hairpin drop. Her pulse pounds like the clomp of her sweet ridin’ horse. She keeps her boots firmly planted, as she grasps tightly at a slim glimmer of hope seethin’ within her. She can’t let the overwhelmin’ fear get to her.
Her Pa needs her.
The dry earth’s fit ends as she stares once again into the bubblin’ stream. Her small frame, covered with fear-sweat quivers. A little less than before. But not much. The clear, reflection-free water darkens. It mirrors the darkness of the impossible night sky above with its endless dots of light. The sky above and the stream below are one and the same. Reflections...
Pa stands in the main room of their home sweet home, waitin’ for Viburnie to come-a-crawlin’ to the crispy pork strips she loves so. He places the grease-laden pork strips on the small wooden table he and Viburnie have shared so many provisions on together, and sighs. Why ain’t Viburnie a-runnin’ to the table yet? He wonders.
“Viburnie,” he calls out in his gruff yet all-too-kind voice that Viburnie can’t resist. “The pork strips are a-ready. You better hurry b’fore they go on and get cold.”
He rubs the sweat buildin’ on his wrinklin’ forehead, the stench of the hearthen fire gettin’ to him. He opens the only other greased-paper window in their small cabin, worry makin’ its way up his body.
“Viburnie, this is your last warnin’. I’m going come and get you soon if you don’t come-a-runnin’...” His voice cracks as the worry grabs hold of him. Why ain’t she a-comin’?
Pa makes his way to Viburnie’s room, the room beside his in the back of their lowly cabin. Her mauve special occasion’s dress thrown on her bed and the wide-open glued-paper window stop Pa in his tracks. His hands start to tremble as they’ve been doin’ lately when he worries too much about his sweet Viburnie.
He frantically picks up her best (and only) dress with his heart poundin’ near out of his chest, runs past his own little room where he sleeps, and pries open the front door of their home sweet home. He skids by their blossomin’ little garden on the side of the cabin, making his way past their ridin’ horses and eatin’ animals in their make-shift stable, reachin’ the bubblin’ stream where Viburnie likes to go and clear her head.
Her used-to-be white nightie strewn on the blazin’ hot earth beneath his feet nearly makes him keel over. He squints, the bright sun beamin’ in his tired eyes, and spots his sweet Viburnie standin’ over the bubblin’ stream with not a stitch of clothin’ on.
“Have you no shame, Viburnie?” He shouts, expectin’ her to answer.
But, she don’t.
With her back to her Pa holdin’ her mauve dress, and her bare arms up in the stale air, she don’t reply. She stands perfectly still in her too-tight corset and underthings, her gaze on the clear blue sky above.
“Viburnie, why don’t you answer me?” Pa shouts, his hands tremblin’ out of control, so much so that he nearly drops Viburnie’s only good dress onto the dirty ground.
Viburnie turns ’round, her face whiter than white, her pale pink lips drawn out in a grin much-too-wide. Her riding boots slick with bubblin’ stream water. Her limbs covered in a thick layer of sweat, so thick it glistens in the blazin’ sun. She keeps her arms up high as if she’s reachin’ for somethin’ that’s not there, and doesn’t say a word. Not-a-one.
Pa freezes, starin’ at his sweet Viburnie who seems to be half-crazed. Tears wet his rough, unshaven face as his hands twitch uncontrollably. Fear surges through his agin’ body. He don’t know what to do. He’s been through some rough times with sweet Viburnie, real rough times, but this time just about takes the cake. His mind draws a blank. He wishes Ma was still here.
She might just know what to do.
He waits until he can wait no more. It feels like days go by. Viburnie, still as a statue, mute as a hairpin droppin’ onto the dry earth, won’t budge from where she stands. Won’t put her strong arms down by her side. Pa panics. He can’t lose his sweet Viburnie. Not on today of all damn days.
He yells at the top of his lungs, “Viburnie. Viburnie, it’s me. Your Pa. I don’t know what’s got you spooked...” His gruff yet all-too-kind voice trails off as he tries once again to steady his hands. It takes all his strength to keep himself from droppin’ her pretty dress, but he does it. He won’t let her down.
Pa strides slowly over to Viburnie. He don’t want to push her over the edge. Whatever that edge might be. He gets real close to her, so close that he can see her deepest of blue eyes twinklin’ with dots of light. Her eyes draw him in. Her eyes so dark blue they are nearly as black as the night sky. His body feels as if it floats right into her eyes. Right into the endless ocean of the night sky he’s seen so many times with its infinite points of bright light.
His worries seep out of his agin’ body. Worries about Viburnie. Worries about Ambrosie. Worries about Chet. Worries about Hawthorn. Worries about Flint. Worries about their small town in the middle of nowhere. Worries about them sky falling things. One by one, they exit his worn-out hide. A heavy weight lifts off his body.
If only for a moment...
His body floats back to Viburnie. Right back to her deepest of blue eyes. She stands before him, still as ever, her small, muscular arms erect to the pale blue sky above. He looks at her, really looks at her, studyin’ her face for all its worth. He knows she’s in there somewhere. He knows it.
He places her special occasion’s dress on a stone at the edge of the bubbling stream and then gently pushes her arms down, one at a time, feeling the thick coating of sweat caress his no-longer shakin’ hands. Viburnie don’t move. Tears flood down his scruff cheeks as he does the unthinkable. As he slaps his sweet Viburnie’s face from tender lily-white cheek to tender lily-white cheek.
It’s all he can think to do.
“I’m sorry, sweet Viburnie,” he cries as her pure white cheeks take on a reddish hue.
He stops. Sudd’nly. The endless points of light dissipate from her big, mysterious eyes. Her pale pink lips inch back to a subtle, yet unmistakable frown. Pa’s tremblin’ resurfaces, as he grasps her tight. Tighter than he ever has. She don’t push him away. She keeps to their embrace. She feels his heart poundin’ fast. She inhales the sweet smellin’ pig grease on his rough skin. She feels his love, honest and true as he holds her tight, the way he always does...
Back in the main room of their home sweet home, Pa and Viburnie sit at their cozy eating table, crosswise from each other. The empty wooden chair, the one Ma used to sit on, her sweet smile radiatin’ pure love whenever they shared provisions together, sits empty. Neither of them dare sit in it. Not since Ma passed a might long time ago.
Viburnie sits uncomfortably in her special occasion’s dress. She pulls and prods at her too-tight corset pinching at her bosom. Pa rations the sweet pig strips, still scaldin’ hot in the cast-iron skillet. He doles out more than half of the strips to his sweet Viburnie. He can’t resist givin’ into her might cravings. Even after what happened at the bubblin’ stream.
The two of them wolf down their sweet pig strips, the grease coatin’ their calloused, hard-workin’ fingers. Pa, still sittin’ in his long johns and sleepin’ top, wrinkles his forehead, befuddl’d at what took place just a few ticks ago. He smiles at sweet Viburnie as he shovels the pig strips betwixt his dry, cracked lips, wonderin’ what in tarnation actually happened out there.
Viburnie smiles back at her Pa as she devours her favourite mornin’ meal. A half-smile. Half smile, half frown. She opens her pale pink lips to say somethin’, and then closes them mighty quick without utterin’ a single syllable. She stares at her Pa, not knowin’ what to say. She bites the bullet, and spews somethin’ out just to cut the crazy silence.
“Might pretty day, huh, Pa,” she mutters, her southern accent thick as the sweet pork strips. She taps her ridin’ boots on the dilapidated wooden floor, wonderin’ if her Pa will read right through her trite nicety.
Pa pulls his chair in closer to the table, fidgets with his eatin’ plate, and screws up the courage to say somethin’. Anythin’...
“Might pretty, indeed, sweet Viburnie. But not as pretty as you,” he chirps, his scruff, aged face beamin’ with joy as he flatters his youngin’ for the umpteenth time.
Viburnie keeps on a-tappin’ her ridin’ boots, numbly acceptin’ her Pa’s sweet, empty words. Her petite, muscular frame fills with anger. She sees red. She can’t hold it in no more.
“Pa, what happened to Ma?” she demands, her direct attitude inchin’ right back.
Pa sighs, his heavin’ chest bespeakin’ his agitation. He stares right into her deepest of blue eyes, eyes so big they shouldn’t be, and cracks his knuckles right on the table. Right in front of sweet Viburnie.
“You know might well what happen’d to your Ma,” he chirps in his thick southern drawl as he keeps a-crackin’ his dry knuckles.
Viburnie squirms, the raw crackin’ sound makin’ her head hurt real bad. She taps her ridin’ boots a might louder, waitin’ for her Pa to tell her the truth once and for all.
“Do I?” She chides, a distinct tone of sarcasm undercuttin’ her thick accent. “I’m not sure I know anythin’ anymore!” She shouts, her lily-white cheeks turnin’ red.
Pa wipes his wrinklin’ forehead, the heat of the day already a-gettin’ to him. His creased, rough face twitches, as he tries to come up with somethin’ that will keep Viburnie’s curious eyes a-closed. He runs his calloused fingers through his thinnin’ chestnut hair, touchin’ the hairs he knows are a-turnin’ grey.
“Viburnie, what’s got in to you, my sweet child?” Pa chirps as his hands start a-tremblin’ again.
“I am no longer a child, Pa,” she interjects with a taste of disdain on her palest of pink lips. “I am a grown woman, and a grown woman’s got a right to hear the truth.”
He closes his eyes, closin’ himself off to his sweet Viburnie. It nearly kills him, but it’s somethin’ he’s got to do.
“I would never hide the truth from you, Viburnie, you know that, right? I am your Pa. You can count on me for anythin’. You know that...” His words trail off, words uttered as a near-whisper, as a tricklin’ stream of tears wets his rough, tanned face.
She keeps on tappin’ her riding boots on the dilapidated wooden floor. Louder and louder. An anger she has never known floods her small, muscular frame.
“Why do you keep your eyes closed, Pa?” Viburnie shouts. “Why can’t you look at me when I bring up Ma’s passin’?”