You don’t any more than cross the road to your neighbor’s house when you hear the crack of the plastic hose against her bottom. A girl of fourteen, large for her age, lies sprawled in the driveway, pants to her knees. Dirt mixes with saliva and covers her lips and chin. She is crying. She is wailing. You are running. You are running toward her with every muscle on fire.
…..A man stands above her cursing in a thick accent but you cannot discern his words above her cries. The man snarls as you approach and slings gravel in your direction with the side of his boot. He turns to make his way to the barn. Three steps away he stops to remove a plastic flask from his coveralls. He takes a swig, swallows, and staggers on.
…..In the few seconds it takes you to reach her she manages to shuffle to her knees. You snap your handkerchief from your dungarees and wipe dirt from her mouth, then smooth the tears on her cheek. With both hands under her forearm, you help her to her feet. She struggles to pull up her pants. She squints and tucks her chin while you avert your eyes.
…..I’m sorry, she stutters.
…..She places her hand on her mouth, closes her eyes and shakes her head.
…..You help her across the gravel drive to the lawn. The grass soothes her feet. Her feet are dirty and calloused.
…..You sit in the cool, your backs against the gnarled trunk of a maple tree. A pickup truck groans by steady and slow. A man with a hat camped low on his head cranes his neck and stares through black sunglasses. A cigarette hangs from his lip. His armpit is perched on the bottom of the window, elbow pointed to the road. The man nods but does not wave.
…..You lift her hand as the truck breaks the crest of the hill and disappears. Its low rumble wanes as you clasp her hand.
…..Pippy. Please, tell me.
…..Mrs. Yancey—she called my father.
…..Why, Pippy? What? Grades?
…..Her eyes well. She takes her bottom lip between her teeth. Her hair falls down from her shoulders and covers her face. She sobs and stutters between intermittent sniffles to clear her nose.
…..It—was—oh, God I’m embarrassed.
…..What do you mean? Pip. Come on, say it.
…..It was peanut butter. In my desk.
…..I don’t understand. Tell me—
…..Pip covers her eyes with the heel of her hands.
…..Because…I’m fat. I’m too fat. He hates me because I’m fat. Because I took the peanut butter—I hid it in my desk. It’s all I have.
…..She pauses to dry her eyes.
…..I can’t help it. I’ve tried and tried but I can’t…
…..You glance back home across the street at the old farmhouse where the aroma of bread fills the air. Bread that your mother insists that you slather with butter and honey the minute you get home from school. Bread enough to tide you over until dinner. Bread enough for over-sized sandwiches that you’ll carry to school in a brown bag. Enough for breakfast the following day.
…..Beyond the farmhouse your father is at work in the field. You hear the thrum of the old tractor. You hear the occasional ting of disc on stone. The field is green and alive and stretches for a half mile on both sides of the laneway. The lane takes the shape of an arc and parts the field like a smile. Halfway down the lane stands a single tree where your mother and father meet for lunch—even when it rains.
…..Your thoughts return to the present moment but it takes you awhile to find her again. Find her thoughts. Untangle them from your own. She does not share with anyone but you.
…..She looks up.
…..Don’t listen to him. You hear me? I mean it, Pip. You’re not fat. You’re not fat at all. You’re beautiful, Pip—a beautiful person.
…..She takes a breath.
…..I have to go, she says. He’s waiting.
…..Waiting for what? Pip?
…..I have to go.
…..You look around, this time preoccupied with her house and the uneven windows stapled at their corners with remnants of plastic leftover from the previous winter. The house is gray and without paint. Bricks lie on the ground in disarray next to the chimney. The field behind the barn is brown and fallow. Overgrown here and there with brambles and the occasional thistle.
…..Pip. I’m telling my old man.
…..No! God, no. Please.
…..She rests her head on your shoulder and sobs.
…..Did you mean it? she asks.
…..That I’m beautiful.
…..Of course. Of course I did.
…..Can you say it?
…..You’re beautiful, Pip. I swear it.
…..You help her to her feet. Tuck the handkerchief in your pocket. You place your hands on her shoulders. Her eyes are fixed to the ground. You tip your head down and give her shoulders a single shake. She looks up.
…..You begin to make your way back home but hesitate as you cross the road. The uneven divide that separates two disparate worlds. You drag your shoe and listen to the sound of the gravel skid beneath your sole. When you reach your side of the road you stop and turn around. She is walking. She is walking away, deliberate and slow—hands wrapped around arms.
…..You call out to say that you love her but stop before the words depart from your lips. You know the words must only be true. Absolute and true as if forged with a hammer or carved from stone. The words must never bend or break or change. The words must be anything but plastic.
The Imaginary Harpoon
…..It had been two days since the sea took Solomon. Two days since the tangle of rope unleashed its tentacles, snatched his ankle, and jerked him face down across the deck as froth washed over his back. The mast sheared off clean, crashed to the floor, and then plunged into the water. The rope, belayed about its middle, dragged Solomon right along with it. His long, tan body slipped under a wave—the ocean drinking him in as if it sucked an oyster out of its shell. His golden hair bobbed from his head like a buoy in the wake, then the fog draped over him thick as a wall of cotton.
…..Everyone on board declared Solomon dead except for George-eddy. The old leather-faced harpooner was convinced a man like Solomon wouldn’t go easy and there wasn’t any changing his mind. When the wind fell slack the captain called the men on deck to say a few words for Solomon but George-eddy wouldn’t give him his ear. Said he had a few words to say of his own but not for any ghost of Solomon’s. Before the captain uttered a sound, George-eddy leapt through the air and landed flat footed on the chain-box swinging a rope high above his head.
…..“Remember the story of Solomon’s Knot!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
…..The seamen froze and lifted their eyes to the old man still swinging but slower and slower until the rope went limp in his hand. He paused, made a fist, and pressed it to his chest.
…..“I was with him the winter of 1812 when the limeys captured our ship—all of us chained in the belly of their stinking Man O’ War. And when the captain ordered us to fight for their pleasure while they drank and pissed through the grates of the brig I was with him, too. I was there when Solomon offered a duel against their best man in return for leaving us be. I was there when he struck the deal. He and the brut chained to the deck, a fight to the finish, and their only weapon, a four-foot length of rope. I was with him when he tied the knot and swung it like a sledge until the brut lay dead on the floor. Sure as my blood runs red, there’s no chance in hell something shallow as the sea can take a man like Solomon!”
…..George-eddy turned to the ocean and motioned with his arm as if throwing an imaginary harpoon.
…..“North and east!” he roared—arm extended. “On the northeast swells, Solomon rolls with this wretched sea!”
…..One by one, the men nodded their heads.
…..“We must believe!” he exclaimed with a force that emptied his chest, “Though we cannot see him, we must set sail and believe!”
…..The old man jerked both elbows out and tied a knot at the end of the rope and then swung it above his head.
…..Every man cheered and threw fists in the air, enlivened by the words of George-eddy—every man except for the captain who stood, stone-faced, holding the bible.
…..“Let us pray,” the captain said, and just like that, the men hung their heads. Like whatever sunshine George-eddy lit up inside them leaked right out through their folded hands. Like his words eclipsed the sun and made it black as night.
…..With his back to the assembly, George-eddy stared out at the gray abyss, swinging his rope, steady and level but slow. Off in the distance, he caught sight of a shallow hulled ship—a light breeze coaxed its sails. Through his scope he discerned the shape of a single mast, fore-and-aft rigged—an American cutter, likely bound for a New England port, or in search of ships distressed by the storm. A rescue vessel, he surmised, with a captain more apt to believe that Solomon survived, in spite of the vagaries of the sea.
…..He stuffed the spyglass in his vest and leapt from the box to the aft side of the ship where a dinghy hung suspended from a single lanyard. He climbed inside, slashed the rope and grabbed hold of the gunwale as it plunged to the froth below.
…..For ten hours he strained against the oars but could not catch the cutter. When night fell upon the water, he stretched out on his back and drifted asleep, comforted by a blanket of stars.
…..As morning approached the waves lolled him awake to the sound of seagulls. He clambered upright and shaded his eyes for signs of the cutter but none could be found.
…..He rowed strong and steady toward the call of the gulls. By noon the sound of their cackling had increased and by sunset he had them in sight. A pair circled overhead surveying what appeared to be remnants of wreckage below—cocking their heads at a lone bird that sat ruffling on one end of a floating mast. A golden haired Solomon straddled the other end, rowing long steady arcs with a shattered board that he used as a makeshift paddle.
…..They exchanged neither words or expression as George-eddy hauled Solomon into the dinghy. After a drink of water, Solomon stretched out on his back and closed his eyes.
…..George-eddy spent the night pulling at the dinghy’s oars while Solomon slept—pointing the bow west, the polestar starboard side. Dawn was breaking as they neared landfall. The air was calm and the sea stretched out before them placid and blue. When Solomon awoke, he asked George-eddy, how was it that he alone had found him. The old man pressed down on the oars to break the paddles free from the water.
…..“Was me that believed.”
…..Solomon nodded. George-eddy winced at the sun still hiding below the horizon. Its rays, alive with promise, could not yet commit to the coming day—biding their time in compliance, as if shackled to the ocean’s moon.
John Grabski is a University of Liverpool and Harvard alumni that lives in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the The Tishman Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Unbroken Journal, Eclectica Literary Mag, Animal Literary Mag, The Harpoon Review, Ash & Bones, Crack the Spine Literary, Cyclamens & Swords, Foliate Oak Literary Mag and a host of others. Find him at GRABSKIworks.com or @GrabskiJohn.