by Kassandra Montag
Martha looked up at the old Victorian house perched on the edge of a bluff that overlooked a tiny river trickling down the foothills of a mountain.
“I’ll get the bags,” Kenneth said, tossing Martha the key over the hood of their car. Martha and Kenneth had driven three hours from Kansas City to rent a Victorian house in the Ozarks for a week. Through the whole drive they had been silent and Martha dreaded the silence coming into the house, invading its corners, sitting with her on the sofa.
Martha climbed the steep walk with a bag of groceries in one arm until she reached the front door. The knocker was a man’s face, mouth wide open, holding a large brass ring. Inside, everything glowed in different shades of white and cream. A wood table painted white, white porcelain dishes, clear glasses, white candles set in ivory candlesticks, a lamp base of white stone with a creamy linen lampshade, lace doilies on side tables.
“How is it?” Kenneth asked, setting their suitcases down on the entryway rug.
A taxidermy white fox stood on the mantel over the fireplace. Martha stroked its fur. “It’s white.”
Pure. Too pure. Like a person who was scared to live.
During supper Kenneth remained quiet, eating stew and sipping red wine. His red hair looked darker in the dim lighting of a few small lamps scattered around the perimeter of the dining room. The light cast a dark glow over his face, emphasizing whatever features did not fall into shadow.
Martha dropped her fork on her plate. It clattered loudly, reverberating between the white walls. Kenneth looked up.
“This is what I was afraid of,” she said. “This is exactly why I didn’t tell you.”
“The only reason I’m upset is because you didn’t tell me.”
“I don’t believe you’re mad because I didn’t tell you. I believe you’re mad because I can’t give you children.”
“I’m mad at you for lying to me. I’m disappointed we can’t have children. Not mad. You should have told me,” Kenneth said.
“Yeah?” Martha said, looking up at him. She took a deep breath, expanding her chest, and straightening her back. “You still would have married me?”
Kenneth sighed and looked out the window. It faced the orchard, where the crabapple tree bloomed with light pink blossoms. Behind the orchard a steep hill rose; halfway up its steep incline there was a small dark cabin.
“It’s not about that, Martha. It’s about trust. About… being honest.”
“Then be honest with me,” she said quietly.
Kenneth wouldn’t answer.
Martha woke up in the giant bed alone. When she opened her eyes and glanced around the blank room she felt as though she were disappearing in the white, an erasure, all of her divisions slowly being uprooted back to their genesis, as though she were caught in a celestial throat; a new, never-ending birth.
From the window over her bed a chilly breeze pushed the gauzy curtains further into the room. It was six in the morning. She dressed in a gray wool sweater, jeans, a white linen scarf, and a pair of hiking boots and brushed her long brown hair into a ponytail. She slipped Kenneth’s watch on to her thin wrist.
She tiptoed down the stairs, hoping not to wake Kenneth, who she assumed had moved to the couch at some point in the night. At the bottom of the stairs, which faced the living room couch, she glanced around.
Martha took a startled step forward as she turned around to face him. He stood a foot over her, making her feel shadowed. “What are you doing up so early?”
Kenneth shrugged. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. A walk,” Martha shook her head, her eyes looking up, as though she were trying to remember something.
“Can I come?” he asked.
The light let in by the wide windows reflected off the white walls and furniture, making the room feel as though it were constantly expanding.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” she said, stepping aside so he could grab his coat and they stepped outside the door.
The chilly morning air was shocking against Martha’s face for a moment and she rubbed her hands over her arms. As they walked through the woods toward a small river, Kenneth pointed to several wildflowers, asking which they were.
Martha worked in a greenhouse, which she thought similar to a zoo: the false environment, the coaxing of plants to flourish outside of their native soil. It required a sleight of hand, part reproduction of their environment, and part depending that they would adapt to the aspects that could not be reproduced. It was the survival instinct in them that made living within pots and troughs possible. It wasn’t what she wanted, to work within the glass walls, but it was the only job she could get that allowed her to work with plants. What she had noticed with plants, particularly the aggressive ones who crushed the roots of other plants under the soil, was that selfishness meant survival.
After several moments of silence a splash of water erupted on the surface of the river and Martha thought she saw a brown shape disappear under a cluster of logs near the opposite bank. Otter or beaver.
“Can you forgive me?” Martha asked.
Kenneth glanced at her, squeezed her hand tighter for a moment and let go. He picked a piece of loose bark off a sycamore.
“I think so…” he said quietly.
“You don’t want to?”
“No, I do. I feel I already have forgiven you. But something has changed. I don’t know that forgiveness can change it back.”
At sixteen, when Martha first found out that she had a rare syndrome which prevented the formation of a uterus or fallopian tubes, she felt horrified by her own body, horrified by how it acted and looked normal but was missing such essential parts. When spending time with girlfriends and the topic of future pregnancies and children came up, Martha played along, acted excited or disgusted or afraid or indifferent, whichever emotion was exhibited by the other girls. The result was an out of body sensation: Martha in one place, her body in another, as though they were sitting side by side, refusing to look at one another.
“You don’t see me the same,” she said.
He glanced at her sidelong and turned his face away. “You aren’t the same… who I thought you were. I didn’t think you would keep this sort of a secret from me.”
Martha grimaced and shook her head in disgust. “The only difference between you and me is that I know how I’m failing you. I knew from the start that I’d fail you.”
“You’re saying I am failing you, but I just don’t know it?”
Martha stopped walking. She could always feel the moment in their fights when she had said something too true, and Kenneth would look at her in his raw way, his light blue eyes steaming from their lack of defenses. And she too was open, vulnerable; she had accidentally said what was actually on her mind, without pruning it back into a new shape.
Kenneth took a step toward her. His jaw was set tight; a muscle in his throat twitched. She took a step backward and slipped on a damp rock close to the river. Kenneth caught her elbow with one hand and grabbed her waist with the other.
“I’ve always wanted you,” said Kenneth. “Don’t make this just about kids.”
Martha had backed away against a sycamore tree. At her feet wild violets lay trampled where she had stepped.
“You just want to be the good guy,” Martha said.
Kenneth pulled her closer to him and his arms shook. Martha couldn’t decide if it was from the cold or from anger. In the two months since she had told him about her infertility they had not been intimate, or even this close, face-to-face. After she had told him Kenneth avoided her eye contact, moved his body away from hers in bed, and she could tell by his slow methodical movements around her that he was trying to control himself, his body, trying to restrain himself from turning toward her and folding her in his arms. Now he was looking at her, glaring, and she shivered, the cold air glazing her limbs in the lightest touch.
“Don’t try and tell me who I am,” he said.
“That’s what we do to each other, isn’t it?” Martha asked.
Kenneth leaned forward and kissed her hard on the mouth.
Martha leaned into him and he pulled her down to the forest floor, twigs snapping under their knees, grass bending under her thighs, a rock digging into her shoulder blade. A great horned owl flew over them and landed in a nearby tree. Martha thought she could hear the high-pitched cries of its young in a nest, but maybe she was only imagining it. The forest seemed both still and alive, a presence, waiting, watching.
Kenneth had already slid her pants to her knees and his warm hands grasped each side of her ribcage. The cold dirt beneath her legs and the warmth of his body on her made her feel divided and mildly delirious. He dug into her and they rocked in the dirt, a human cradle, a cocoon of bones.
Afterwards they lay on the ground for several minutes, his hot breath on her neck, her shoulder tucked under his arm.
“We should get back,” she whispered to him.
They both stood. Martha’s foot caught under an exposed root and she lunged forward, catching herself against an Osage orange tree. When she gripped the tree’s low hanging branch to steady herself a searing pain ripped through her hand and she winced and pulled it back. Blood dripped from a cut across her palm.
“Honey,” Kenneth said. He took her hand and held it up to his face, examining the cut. His face before her began to blur and the ground was dropping away beneath her feet. Blood had always made her dizzy, especially her own.
He unwound her scarf from her neck and wrapped it around her hand, applying steady pressure. The thorn was an inch long and a half-inch thick and Martha felt as though it were still inside her.
“I can’t see it that well,” Kenneth said. He tilted his head toward a clearing on their left, where sunlight was not filtered into shadows, the way it was clouded and dark among the sycamores beside the river. They had been out for two hours and walked over a mile from the house. Her blood soaked through the thin scarf. She tasted bile in the back of her mouth.
They walked into the clearing and when Martha looked up she saw an old woman pulling radishes from her vegetable garden.
The woman’s face looked like a puckered vegetable, a tomato left out to dry in the sun; it all came together in a point at her nose, and deep wrinkles seemed to draw her mouth up and her forehead down. She wore a faded blue dress with long sleeves and thick wool brown socks under her black boots. A white apron with bloodstains was tied above her waist, draping over her paunch. The garden looked nearly the size of a quarter of an acreage, and in front of it stood a small cabin made of the very trees which grew in the forest near the river.
Kenneth and Martha stared at her for a moment. Martha had gotten so used to the idea of them being alone that the appearance of a stranger unsettled her.
“She hurt?” the old woman said, lifting her head to indicate Martha. Martha looked down at her hand, which Kenneth was still applying pressure to, as though she had forgotten it.
“Yes,” Kenneth said. He told her that Martha had been cut on a long thorn from a tree.
“Those are nasty,” the old woman said. “You should disinfect and wash it.” She jerked her head in the direction of the cabin. The old woman lumbered forward toward them, one hand holding the radishes in a bunch by their leaves. “Come on in,” she said in a voice that scraped them like a wire brush on a potato.
Martha looked at Kenneth. “We could just walk back to the house and call a doctor. It may need stitches.”
“Closest doctor is thirty miles away,” the old woman said. Martha had a premonition that the old woman had no idea how near or distant any doctor was.
“You look too pale to walk back now,” Kenneth said gently and led her in the direction of the cabin.
The old woman led them up two worn steps to the door and inside the cabin. The cabin was so dark Martha’s eyes took a moment to adjust. The only light came in from a small window over the kitchen sink and a fireplace a few feet in front of the door. The main room was an open space with the kitchen, a small table, the fireplace, and an old armchair with a quilt thrown over its back. The cabin smelled like smoke, blood, and lilac. Martha suddenly remembered seeing the line of lilac bushes growing on the far side of the vegetable garden, but only now, the scent seemed to reach her. The walls and most of the furniture, was all made out of wood, giving it a harmonized look that reminded Martha of the uniform whiteness of the Victorian.
“My father built this in ’27,” the old woman said proudly. She leaned over a counter where a headless chicken lay, its feathers clumped and bloody in a bucket on a chair, and lit an oil lamp and carried it to the table. “I do have electricity, but it’s broke now,” she said, as though explaining herself. The old woman glared at them for a moment, her shoulders hunched forward, her puckered face stuck forward on her skinny neck like a vulture. “She needs to sit down.” She pulled out a chair for Martha at the table. “Have a seat and I’ll bandage it proper.”
The delirious feeling Martha had in the forest returned to her as she sat down and she swayed slightly. The cabin seemed to be closing in on her. Kenneth stood at her side, still holding her hand and applying pressure, but it felt as though he were standing in the doorway, watching her from afar, leaving her in the old woman’s hands.
The old woman rummaged through a cabinet and pulled out a thin cloth and ripped it in two. She washed her hands, pulled a black jar out of the cabinet and filled a bowl with water at the sink. After she carried these to the table she sat in the chair in front of Martha and took Martha’s hands in hers. Her hands were surprisingly soft, like velvet leaves, and she moved them gently and slowly.
She washed the cut with water, picking out debris deftly with her fingernails. When she opened the black jar it emitted a putrid smell and Martha saw it contained clear ointment.
“What is that?” Martha asked.
“You’re pale. Breathe,” the woman said.
“What is it?” Kenneth asked.
“It cleans the wound. Nothing will grow in there,” the old woman said.
The old woman applied a dollop of ointment on the cut. As the old woman wrapped her palm, folding and tucking the material carefully, Martha felt as though her whole body were being wrapped in white cloth, draped in warmth and a fuzzy sense of disconnection.
“You act like you haven’t seen your own blood before,” the old woman said to Martha. She looked at Martha as though she could see right through her, as though she had been the owl flying above Martha and Kenneth before they made love. Martha had never had a period, but she didn’t think her fear of blood had anything to do with that. But somehow, the old woman’s eyes suggested it.
Martha smiled meekly. “Just makes me nervous, I guess.”
“Animals can smell blood. Bobcats are out, especially this time of year. Young deer,” she said. Martha wondered about the old woman’s state of mind.
“You live here alone?” Martha asked.
“I like alone,” the old woman said.
Martha used to tell herself the same thing. Children especially frightened her, and on days when her syndrome didn’t feel like a defining deficiency, she felt free. Children can see clean though you, as though once they come through you they can get back in. Their eye up to a keyhole, looking through you and watching your inner workings in your inner rooms.
Out of the corner of her eye Martha noticed the white blossom of a rein orchid in a ceramic pot above the mantel of the fireplace.
“Those…those can be difficult to grow,” Martha said, pointing to the orchid. “To keep alive. How do you do it?”
“Listen,” the old woman said. She squeezed Martha’s hand gently, the pressure soft and soothing, as though she were coaxing Martha’s blood in the bandage back up into her hand. “It tells me everything. Some things, other things, don’t want to live.”
Martha wondered how long it had been since the old woman had seen another person. All day long and only her own voice, creating, inventing, interpreting her surroundings, like seeing in only one color, a grayscale that would leave with her when she died.
“This looks good until we can get home. Then we can call a doctor and have it looked at. Thank you,” Kenneth told the old woman.
The old woman glared at him. “It doesn’t need doctoring.”
“Thank you so much for your help,” Martha said as she got up from the table.
The old woman clucked her tongue like a chicken and waved her hand as though she were shooing them away. But when Martha paused in the doorway to look back at the woman, the old woman was watching her with something like pity.
Once outside, they walked back to the river and followed it in the direction of their rented house.
“That was weird,” Kenneth said, as they made their way through the trees back to the deer trail, in the direction of the Victorian. “My cousin last year ran into a backwoods family on his camping trip. None of them had teeth.”
Martha didn’t respond to this. She watched her step more closely as they made their way through the thicket and around several sycamores. She imagined the old woman at her daily tasks: planting tomatoes, skinning deer in the shed, pulling radishes. Sweeping her porch, which gathered dirt with each step she took over it. All maintenance, all tiresome repetition. It wasn’t just monotony, which in and of itself was bearable. What bothered Martha was how some things were out of control, no matter how hard you worked or how hard you wanted something.
But maybe it didn’t matter if things weren’t in your control, Martha thought. Maybe you still had to choose life. Choose the honest, brutal, monotony.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Martha said to Kenneth. “I thought…if I didn’t talk about it, then it wouldn’t be true.”
Kenneth stopped on the trail and looked at her. “I know.”
He took her injured hand and his touch was so light she couldn’t feel it through the bandage. He placed his other hand on the small of her back and helped her step in front of him on the trail. The river before them moved like a rabid animal, folding in on itself, colliding with rocks, its spray soft and feathered. But underneath, its dark undercurrents twisted. That’s where its hunger lived—beneath—where the water surged and sang, merciless and unstable, ripe with pleasure.
Kassandra Montag grew up in rural Nebraska and now lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature and her award-winning poetry and short fiction has appeared in journals and anthologies, including Midwestern Gothic, Nebraska Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Mystery Weekly Magazine. After the Flood is her first novel.