The River Woman's Son

Melanie Rae Thon

Melanie Rae Thon's most recent book is the collection of stories First, Body. She is also the author of two novels, Meteors in August and Iona Moon, and the collection Girls in the Grass. Originally from Montana, she now  teaches at The Ohio State University

















                  The River Woman's Son

A story from the Spring 1997 issue of Ploughshares

At the edge of a river and the end of a road, a blue-eyed boy lived with his mother and five sisters. The women sewed wedding gowns for every girl from every town. But not one of the river woman's daughters made a dress for herself. They were too plain, too fat, too thin, too tall. A cruel joke, the mother said, because her rosy boy was too pretty for his own good.

The sisters loved him well. They played with him when he was small. Dressed him like a doll in lace and silk. Then one day the river woman caught him pissing in the yard. Just like your father, she said, locking the door. From four windows four sisters chanted, Dirty boys can't sleep in our house. The youngest sister felt sorry for her little brother and tossed him a plastic bag packed with nuts and bread, three coins, and the boy's go-to-church clothes.

Run away, she whispered, be like the wind and blow.

This boy was five years old.

The first day he ate the bread and nuts. The second day he bought tobacco and learned to smoke. On the third day he stuffed his good suit with paper and threw it in the river to watch it float. For a long time he stood on the bank, waving goodbye to his old self.

For weeks, the boy walked town to town, begging quarters, sleeping in barns. Sometimes a kind woman let him wash himself under a hose. One gave him raisins and a cup of broth. One gave him a straw hat to shade his pretty face from the sun. One gave him rope to cinch his pants, which had grown too large and kept falling down. All these women gave their pity, and the pity of women weighed in him like a belly full of stones.

At night they were afraid.

At night they latched their windows tight and bolted all their doors.

Wild boy, face flattened to the glass, he howled. They thought he was the wolf, but he felt the air pass through his hands and the rain wash through his bones. He wanted to tell them, I'm nothing but a ghost.

One day, the boy met a man of God. The man said, I don't have much, but with you, my son, I will share all I own. The good man's wife washed the filthy boy. Cut his yellow nails. Clipped his matted curls. He saw the ring of scum he left in her porcelain tub, a gray outline of himself. He saw his long locks, coiled like snakes on the bathroom floor.

When the man and wife tucked the boy into his featherbed, they kissed his fingers and his nose. They said, We love you already. You're our beautiful child now.

But he was afraid of what he'd lost: ring of silt, sharp nails, twisted curls. He thought these pieces were another boy, still scared and unforgiven, still standing by the river where he'd watched his good self drown.

In the morning, the clean boy discovered that the wife had stayed awake all night to sew him a suit of perfect clothes. The blue shirt was made of silk, the thread of spun gold. The pants were black and tough, the kind that never tore. He told himself he must be good and happy in these clothes.

Still, there was a hole he couldn't fill. His belly was the bear. It growled and growled. Each day he rose hours before dawn to eat alone. He devoured bags of cookies, swilled down quarts of milk. Handful by handful, gulp by gulp, he tried to feed the bear fast enough to keep it still. Soon the skinny boy grew puffed and slow. The too-tight perfect clothes lay folded in a drawer, and the boy wore hand-me-downs. Never again did the good wife wash him, though she complained about his smell.

Then, a miracle! On the church steps the man found a tiny child wrapped in swaddling clothes. This was the true son come at last, the one his wife had waited for.

This baby spoke no words, told no lies, cried hardly at all. This child had no teeth. Every day, a simple girl with swollen breasts came to feed him of herself.

One night the woman whispered to the man, How can we make the wrong one go?

Big boy, he frightened them. When he rocked the baby's cradle, he rocked too hard. The woman said, He has eyes like the coyote. Someday he'll eat my baby whole.

Her voice was soft, but these words slipped under the door and down the hall; they whirled into the boy's ear, hissing in his skull. His chest burned, full of live coals. He wanted to smash a window, throw the baby out. His hands twitched. His hands said, Now. He clasped them tight to make them stop. He wasn't a bad boy. His heart was bright and hot but still a human heart. He saw what the man and wife did not: the baby's head was big, but the baby's brain too small.

He couldn't sleep another night in that bed soft as a cloud. The man of God kept a gun in the closet. The good wife kept a carving knife in the kitchen drawer. The gun told the boy, I love noise. The knife said, I love your throat.

Before he left, the boy turned every picture to the wall. Since it was almost winter, he stole a pair of leather boots with leather soles, a down jacket, a wool scarf. He stole the precious letters the man and wife kept sealed in a secret box. That night he burned them in a vacant lot. That night he warmed his hands as he watched the words of love go up in smoke. When he poked the cinders with a stick, they crumbled like his heart of coal.

Now the boy was ten years old.

He slept in the woods, curled in a hollow in the ground. Pines swayed. Their highest limbs were strung with stars. Sticks and rocks tore his jacket. All the feathers floated out. Day by day his body consumed itself. He became a scavenger, eater of fish heads and beetles, pig ears and chicken hearts--anything he could catch, anything people who were still people threw out. As his flesh shrank tight, he saw how his pelvis curved. When he touched his tiny ribs, he wanted to snap each bone.

The bear in the belly made the boy break glass and walk through walls. Everything he stole, he lost. The woods were full of children, thieves like him, little wolves. He covered himself with leaves and dirt. He was always cold. Sometimes the leaves pretended to be hands fondling him in the dark.

One evening at dusk, a strange, pale child appeared in the woods. His coat was covered with stiff white hairs, his face with white down. He went from tree to tree and hole to hole, telling all the missing ones that he knew a woman who would let them sleep by her little fire, safe in her little house. But nobody believed him. They disguised themselves as roots and stones.

Buried in the dirt, the boy thought, Maybe this stranger has a slender knife inside his coat. Maybe he's come to kill me for my leather boots though the leather soles are thin as paper now. Then he saw that the pale creature was not a human boy at all. He was a white deer bounding through the trees, leaving only tracks in snow.

The boy followed. When it grew too dark to see, he crawled. At last he saw a candle flickering in a tarpaper shack at the edge of town. Inside, a hunched woman with yellowish skin fed sticks to a pot-bellied stove. He knocked at the window and she opened her door. She wasn't afraid; she didn't scold. When he tore half the bread from the loaf, she offered butter and jam. She said, Eat all you want, there's more.

The woman with olive skin was very ugly and very old.

He knew the story of the gingerbread house. So what, he thought, let her fatten me up. When she asks to feel my fingers, I'll give her chicken bones.

But she wasn't that witch. She taught him how to talk again, how to use a knife and fork. She tried to teach him words on the page, but they swirled in his head like wind-whipped snow. They buzzed and cursed. Books made the boy so furious, he ripped the pages out. Sometimes he fed them to the pot-bellied stove. Sometimes he ate them himself.

If he raged enough by day, by night he might grow calm. The clean sheets of his tiny bed were cool against his skin and smooth as silk. They made him remember a blue shirt from long ago. They made him remember piles of wedding clothes. Sometimes they woke him to remind him of his filth. Nights like those, he sat in the tub for hours, scratching at his skin until he had no smell.

The woman kept a jar of coins in the cupboard. Each month she'd go to town. On the day the boy turned sixteen, she told him she'd spent their last coin. He found a job repairing roads. The old woman said he was the man of the house. But curled in his little bed, the boy heard a wailing sound, a child far away, the baby with the brain too small, or just his long-lost self. If he cried too hard, his real mother came, the first one, the one who kicked him out. He dreamed himself delicate as a doll in frilly clothes. Mother's big hands gripped like claws. Mother shook his shoulders till his silly whimpering stopped.

Every morning he forgot. But once he knocked the old woman against a wall, called her an ugly witch, told her he hated her as much as he hated everyone else. Afterward he laid his head in her lap and sobbed. She forgave him, of course. She loved him more than she loved herself.

For her sake, the boy worked hard, though he despised the sticky heat and smell of tar. Dizzy one day, he leaned against his shovel and saw a watery mirage, a swarm of white locusts, thousands of tiny winged women dressed in wedding gowns. The foreman never had liked this boy. The foreman said, You're fired. You work too goddamn slow. Later the boy couldn't recall how the other man ended up in the gravel. He didn't remember a silver knife slitting the man's shirt. Didn't hear the knife say, I could open your bowels.

All night the boy lay shivering, wrapped in a wool blanket and dressed in all his clothes. The old woman said, They could send you to prison, you know.

He hid in the forest. He thought, I can't hurt anyone if I'm alone. But the woman followed him. The woman begged him to come home. She said, I'll take care of you forever. I can't bear to be alone.

 Strong as a man, this boy stayed a child in the woman's house. She was an old old woman now. She took a job scrubbing toilets and floors. Each day she looked more like a witch. Her hair grew coarse as wires. Her dark teeth fell out.

The boy told himself she was a beautiful princess snared by a wicked charm. If he could break the spell, she'd be a lovely girl. The magic jar would fill itself with gold. One night she drank sweet wine till she passed out. Like a lover, the boy closed his eyes and kissed her wrinkled mouth. But the old drunken woman with seven teeth refused to be transformed.

He loathed her then, her shriveled breasts, her brittle bones. He slapped her face until she woke. He said, Why did you save me for this? He said, When you die, I'll be the one alone.

She said, You remind me of myself. She said, I was hungry all my life, and cold.

They wept together then. They drank till they were blind. They laughed and swore. All the glasses jumped from the shelves. All the bottles shattered on the floor. The boy and the old woman kissed each other's mouths. The old woman and her only love fell asleep in each other's arms.

Why do I tell this story?

The boy was my lover, if you want to know. The woman died, and the boy followed me until I took him home. He told me this story. I believed his sorrow and his hunger made him more human and more whole. Vain fool, I thought I could love him as the woman loved. I spoke her words. I said, You remind me of myself.

But I lied. I knew nothing of their world. I've starved myself, but I never had to starve. Once on a mountain and once in an ocean, I nearly froze. But I never slept night after night in a hole. On playgrounds and in fields I tackled little boys and pinned them to the ground. It's true. Once I slammed a two-hundred-ten-pound man against a wall. With my fingernails and teeth I've drawn blood from my sister's arms. But I have never held the cold blade to another's flesh and heard the knife say, I could open your bowels.

One night we fought. It doesn't matter why. Some silly thing. I don't remember now.

Later, he thought I was asleep and touched me in the dark. This terrified me more than anything else. More than curses on the stairs, clenched fists, the threat of broken bones. His hands were cool as metal between my thighs. He whispered that he loved me, but I heard other words hammering in my skull. His fingers spoke. They said, We could kill you now. The sharp edges of his hands slipped inside my body. They said, We could scoop you out. In absolute silence his veins said, Washed in your warm blood, we will be clean. Darling, they said, with your bright blood at last we will be filled.


Copyright © 1997 Melanie Rae Thon

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