The Salting by Tom Sheehan

“Can you tell me what happened today?” Midlin Ambeau’s grandfather said, his eyes as clear as his interest.

“I suppose it’s like what you said to Mitch one time,” she said. “Something’s out of whack. At least it feels that way.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, you know what I mean, nothing being perfect. That’s about all of the time anyway, isn’t it? Except for tonight.” She nodded at the point where the sun had disappeared in the glow. The mountain was caught in the afterglow. “There’s always a mystery around.”

Day was drawing down, the mountain just now taking over from the sun. Today had been noteworthy in places and was again with a splendid sunset. The August purple glow settling on the pair, if it had a voice, would have been hushed, perhaps mute. The old man and the young girl were sitting on the back porch of the old rambling house and a random breeze whispered through a few corn tassels in the small garden of the narrow side yard. Moments earlier the sun’s rays had streamed into the kitchen making stripes on one wall.

“Uh huh,” he replied. Softness rode in John Templemore’s voice, and a notion of understanding seemed to have primed it. His deep blue eyes did not search out her eyes, had not laid out anything on her. He had made no demands but the casual question, though it truly bore its own core of ammunition. Sleeves of his dark blue shirt were tightly buttoned at the wrist. Denim dungarees held onto a pale Pacific blueness and his rolled cuffs sat atop ankle-high boots. Absently he picked at a callus might have been as old as his years, then he put aside that task. Always he had been a hardworking and honest man, thick at the jaw, silver grasping outright all his hair, hardly ever having a harsh seam at his lips. His shoulders, any outsider would notice, were as broad and proud as maple limbs. Thick silver eyebrows matched the solid line of his jaw in the perfection of character make-up.

The girl knew that honesty had always been uppermost in her grandfather, and with it came a farmer’s sense of directness. Now he was staring off at the split half pie of the sun, the view from the porch almost majestic, a near crescendo of redness and burnt orange where the hilltop cut the sun in shares and sent upon them the hushed and purple glow, almost sending words with it. An immeasurable awe rode the slight air, as awe and silence often move together. And here his hands now sat still on the arms of his chair, his feet without music.

A judge he could have been, she thought, a judge at the dais, but a judge without sentence. But judges didn’t know everything, she softly agreed to herself. There were other things her grandfather did not know about.

And, thinking that, she felt riven, moving somehow laterally and yet in place. A power rode her, making her a ghost of herself for moments on top of moments. Midlin Ambeau had woken early and knew the anonymous drive again during various parts of the day, the unknown force exerting itself in a sometimes subtle thrust out and back, up and down, all across the back of her mind. And then, not so subtle, it came with a cognizant force, sending sounds to be heard, a message not to be ignored. It was not sexual, had not the new hankering and hunger in it that touching could bring or fantasies or the handsomest boy at school staring at her in the hallway or from the back of a classroom. Nor had it promised the mythical, this force. But during the day, as it had on other days with other signs, something had left her body once again. This she knew. This time, on the way home from school, it had shot out of her like a cannon fired or a loading chute emptied. But it went without any accompanying noise, making no sound at all.

She had thought of irony and subtlety. She had thought of evasion.

Again.

But it would come back. It always did.

She wondered with some kind of meter what the force would measure, being so real, being momentarily abrasive, momentarily powerful, as if she were locked into a war zone unto herself. At that precise moment of her sixteen years on this earth, her loins in partial ache and message the way they had been for months on end, the rest of her suffused with force, she knew exactly where she was. Or she thought she did.

At a mid-point.

At a core.

At a secret.

At a crisis.

At measurement.

Her loins could explode, she believed, and her whole body too. Then, with another whack, the back of her mind could let go. Mysteries somehow sound themselves out, go liquid. The quandary came with weights, with heaviness. Was this why she had come to this time and place?

And she had to find out in what direction she would go, where all of this would take her. There was an awe about her and the old man at that moment, the whisper of the breeze, the hushed purple glow, and the unknown working within her silent torment. If she knew how, she would have openly begged for answers.

It was her grandfather, John Templemore, the old farmer of sorts, who had announced the change for her, the broad-shouldered old man who had raised her for almost fifteen of her years. Her parents and two older brothers had disappeared in Utah on an archeological dig; never a sign, never a trace, never a word, gone off the face of the Earth. No fossil to be read of them, how they ended, if they did. But something real remained, ever-present at times, a remnant of their touching at history or myth, or whatever they were mixed up in, the old man could have said.

“I keep getting these messages that seem to be on their way to you,” her grandfather had said to her at one time, “as if I’m supposed to interpret them. But there is so much contradiction in them, I don’t know where to start.”

Midlin had said, “Are they about my parents, my brothers? Are they answers to all our prayers?”

The old man, heavily into measurement of his own years, had first seen the innate beauty of his granddaughter, and now saw the pain that came as changing signs across her face, the furrows of skin, the soft lips hard for long moments. Now and then there’d be a grimace or a scowl and her whole being could alter in a matter of seconds. Not hateful, but certainly distasteful for him. Often, he thought of good and bad being in everybody, the eternal struggle, and how it might have rooted in his sweetheart granddaughter. Was it a vestige of her lost mother, some heritage left over? Yet this child was the image of his own long-dead wife. She had the highlight blond hair, the beautiful skin so white it shone, the green-blue eyes that carried questions and surprise in them, the endless beauty of her shapeliness that would in time illuminate kitchen and bedroom, the mysteries that abounded the valley of his loving. He had never been able to put aside haunting visions of his wife, at stove or at pillow.

“What I keep getting is a mission being generated for you, formed, something in life you must accept or do or conquer. A power beyond my contemplation.” There was a long pause, as if a sudden day star was first being looked at, or a quick cloud had come into contest with the sky. The darker mountain grasped his eyes again and a long, exasperated volume of breath moved from his chest. His chair creaked punctuation.

“I know it’s not fair that I can’t explain it all. You, it seems, must be the final ear on this. You must hear what is coming at you. Your name, Midlin, came from some part of the same message, almost coded, secretive, not surface stuff. Your mother was privy to something I will never know when she first heard that name and said it was yours. You were but minutes from birth when she named you. Perhaps you too have a part in whatever it was with her. It’s evident that you are different from other kids. I have known that for years on end. And you’ve always known it, from the time you were in the first or second grade and the bullies wanted nothing to do with you. The bully boys, the bully girls, they all knew something about you, and that something has not broken open, has not made itself fully known.”

Now this latest encounter of sorts had risen, and at evening they were sitting on the wide porch of the old house, the sweet breeze talking lightly in the small crop of corn in the side garden, as if secrets were being let out. “See how the rim of the far hill slices the evening sun into half a red pie,” he said, and Midlin could see the sun working in the old man’s eyes. One eye was gray and one sort of greenish and he had always said, in partial explanation but with a smile, “It’s me saying I have half a mind I ought to and half a mind saying I ought not.” He was, she knew, talking in his own way about seriousness and directness.

The hush around them sounded like a pocket watch, the corn tassels at it again sounding as mere and demure as hummingbird wings, the purple glow deepening in near silence. Soon night would struggle for its own voice.

Forever there had been a most serious side to him. She had long ago figured it was her coming into his lonely house that made him so serious. He was out from town a small way and that made her somewhat distant to people also. There had been a time, though vague in her memory, when he was a bouncing ball of stories and jokes and untold energies. Right at that moment, as if in the eye of calm, she felt that old feeling again; things had changed and things were changing; whatever it was was still moving about her. But her coming had a weight of its own. She had always known that. It was part of her personal baggage, she once had admitted to herself, aware she carried a strange onus.

“Can you tell me what happened today?” He said it slowly a second time, even as the breeze again whispered through the corn tassels, like guests in another room, night gathering up itself for the takeover.

She saw the pie of the sun disappearing on the hilltop and felt the elusiveness of answers; some places grow lighter at the same time as others get darker.

Midlin Ambeau twisted in her chair and leaned toward her grandfather. An appalling look crossed her face. “We were coming from school, along the Dascombe Road path, Julie Ann and Gail and me. Where it’s grown thick with bush and brush just before the power lines, where the blueberries are always best. We didn’t hear any screams but like moaning or noise being covered up. At first, we were frightened, and then peeked into the bushes, thinking some of the boys were playing games on us, maybe the Wallbreys. You know how they are. It was Janice Dulcey on the ground, we could tell by her Greybelle skirt, and some man was on top of her. A big man. Bigger than you. He was bald and big and he was doing something awful and Janice was kicking her feet and trying to get away.”

“What happened then? How did you feel? Did he look at you? See you? Did he try to run?” The quick questions spoke his mind, his temperament, his hands rigid on the arms of his chair. His jaw stiffened, she noted, thinking that as a young man he could have been a ferocious foe, perhaps still was.

The whole daytime scene she brought back in place. “I was wild inside, like wires were loose or broken or were bouncing around in there. Like I could have screamed a scream they could have heard at the end of the world. But nothing came out of me except this feeling I can’t describe. Like I was being emptied, Grandpa. Just plain being emptied.” She looked at him, her face reddened, getting redder, her eyes lowering, coming back. She leaned closer, confidante to confidante. “It was so embarrassing, so disgusting. I knew he was hurting her. And then it happened again. That something left me. Rushed from me.”

“What happened to this man?”

Midlin Ambeau looked her grandfather in the eye. There was no blinking this time, no evasion. “The same thing as before.” She paused and nodded, the picture in her mind odious but accurate. “He stood up, hid his privates, and shook all over. Like a dog out of water or coming in from the rain. All scraggly and pasty, so brutal.” Nodding at her own agreement, she closed her eyes seeking the truest assessment, getting the picture right for her grandfather, this man who knew more than he let on. “Oh, he was so horrid and disgusting, so miserably evil I could have shot him.”

The sun was gone, a mere and sudden flare beyond the hilltop. The corn was hushed in the side yard garden. On her skin the air had lightened its touch.

“Right in front of us he turned to salt. Just like the last time, what happened to the shooter at the bank robbery right after school was out. That time when Mrs. Gately was shot in the arm for sounding the alarm, her blood all over the place when she fell out the door and onto the sidewalk.”

The sun was entirely gone. She looked away and came back, the look her face changing.

“Then poor Janice stood up, wobbly, dazed, her Greybelle skirt kind of hiked up but covered with grass and leaves. For a second we could tell she had on those bright red underpants she’s so fond of. At first, she tried brushing off her skirt, but saying nothing. No sound at all. She was shaking, and then salt came pouring out of her mouth. A whole bunch of it, like a cup of it had been thrown down her throat; salt as white as snow. Like she was throwing it up. Like white vomit. She screamed then, oh an ungodly scream and ran down the path toward home, stumbling, tripping over bushes, screaming, wiping off her mouth. We could hear her screams as they came back through the trees. A bit later we could hear her crying, sounding way off, getting closer to home.”

“And him, the man? Did he frighten you?”

“Not then. Not at all.” Midlin Ambeau’s voice rose with defiance. “We could tell he was rooted in place, the whole mass of him, a statue, a statue of salt, like he was never going to hurt anybody ever again. Instantly he was frozen in that form, his legs poised to move, to run away. One arm was stuck out in front, like we were going to attack him, we three girls and him as big as a mountain.”

She harrumphed her annunciation and one of her own hands raised in estimation of the man’s height, a partial smile on her face. “He was this high and you could smell it, the salt, the way salt smells at cleaning things, or like at the beach on a clear, crisp day, or down there on the marsh where you go digging for fishing worms at low tide or where some people go to dig clams. Like salt is the cleanest cleaner there ever is. It smelled like a box of salt right off the shelf when you first open it. Then he fell apart. He fell apart, poured down and was gone.”

The partial smile was still evident and John Templemore knew that realization was closer than ever before.

“Did you feel it again? The same as before?” One hand was on the arm of her chair as if to temper her answer or give her solace. The purple was darker, heavier than lavender, cooler.

Midlin Ambeau, gifted, the gift almost fully exposed now, recaptured much of the incident. “It blew out of me, Grandpa, like a shot or a sudden wind in a tunnel. But there was no noise, only a quick emptiness as if I had created all that was around me. But I never would have put Janice in trouble like that. It was disgusting. It was repulsive. I could have thrown up myself.”

Her white skin was softer, but her chin kept itself high. She sat upright in her chair, he thought, like a queen. Her hair was neat and immaculate, as if an attendant’s hairbrush had just finished its task. The purple glow was on her cheeks. The chair creaked beneath her slight and slender frame. Her beauty was breathtaking to the old man who suddenly remembered his wife in one memorable gesture from a long-gone night of loving.

“I must ask you, Midlin, if you’ve been sexually active.” John Templemore looked into his granddaughter’s eyes. His hands sat idly on the arm rests of the rocker. The hush was universal.

“Oh, once with Larry Pumfrey, Grandpa. Kind of fooling around if you must know. He doesn’t know beans about anything.” She felt cool and relaxed; something far more important was working her mind, owning her.

“What would have happened if you got angry at Larry? If he did something disgusting and you really got angry, would that power have rushed from you? If he touched you wrong or said words that crushed you. I worry about that endlessly, just like I wonder about your mother and father and brothers every waking day of my life. I think you have to realize what’s happening with you. It is something special and you have to bear it and bear with it. I don’t know if it will go away from you.”

The sun was gone then, the sense of purple and lavender was gone, and the mountaintop slipped easily into late clouds. The pause in his words was dramatic and it all nature was in agreement with his tone, and the way he held back the next thought, reclusive, hesitant; could have been burning in him.

At length he let it go, like a slender line of rope slipping from his hands. “Your mother knew something I never knew, had something. I don’t know if it was the same power that works you, but I think it is and it frightens me.” His words were slow and deliberate, bearing spaces for breath. “I’ve often wondered if it was the reason behind their disappearance, all of them, out there in those foothills chasing down those artifacts, that touch of history, that legend she’d been chasing since she was a child. You have to understand what’s happened, what can happen.” He gathered himself for the revelation, the mythic coming to hand. “It’s like Lot’s wife’s misfortune being thrown back to you for a chance at redemption. It may be as simple as that. And, as you might say, that’s awesome.”

Midlin Ambeau did not feel the presence of Lot’s wife, but she knew her mother abounded in the soft evening, as if the two of them had been sequestered on the same path of shadows. The lightness on her cheeks was devastating, as was the touch at the back of her neck. It was a touch she could not remember but always knew. There came a sharing abroad in the evening, in the universe, and she could accept it.

And aged John Templemore, in bed late one evening later on, Midlin off in the night, brought his lovely wife back into his room, shared her gifts and beauty once more, was awed by his wife’s absence. He heard the car in the driveway, the garage door close, the back door open and close. A few moments later he heard his beautiful granddaughter crying in the kitchen. He put his robe on and went slowly down the stairs, frightened of what he’d see, what he’d hear. His footsteps sounded in the hallway the way a footpad’s might sound, soft, slippery, caught up by fabric. Both hands held onto the handrail as he came unsurely down the stairs, not knowing what he would find, trying to get ready for it.

When he entered the kitchen, the cool night air rushed at him with a thin edge. His lovely granddaughter was crying softly at the wide plank table; the long sobs were muted. She was face down on the shiny pine planks, the blonde hair cast like a field of grain across the tabletop, her hands outstretched as if reaching for another hand. Or for solace. Or for understanding.

“What happened, Midlin?” he said. “Why are you crying?” His aged heart beat in his chest so hard and so fast he could hear it, the beating of it racing around the room, going no place, trying to hide. From beyond the window, through the lace curtains, a new moon loaned its rays in layers and golden stripes against one wall. Cool night air rushed him once more with doubt and quick lashes, and from somewhere far off came the dark being of the occult. Night, he surmised, had found its voice, its tenor. Slowly he reached out to touch her hand, the heartbeat alive in his reaching arm, in his reaching fingertips.

His beautiful, gifted and challenged granddaughter looked up from the table, her eyes crowded with tears, redness riding in them, and a faint shadow of doom. “Larry’s gone,” she said sadly, “Larry’s gone.”

 

Tom Sheehan

Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ from Pixabay

3 thoughts on “ The Salting by Tom Sheehan

  1. Hi Tom,
    I love the way that the fantasy element in this is given the same consideration as the family aspect.
    That then gives us something mystical but very recognisable.
    Clever and beautifully told.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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