In the Country
By Christi Nogle
At sunset everything is pink and blue-violet. The mother, Myrna, stands out on the balcony surveying the hills and follows the diagonal lines of them in zigzag down and past the tree line to the scene on the lawn. The little boy and little girl’s nightdresses glow pink in the sunset, succulents at their feet all spiral-shaped, soft and pebbly, the harder white of lilies behind them and the red-green foliage of the roses behind them. Their hair, which always shimmers in the light—his yellow-gold and hers deep reddish brown—is darkened now and so their skin glows healthier rose against it. There are no shadows on their faces. The pebbles between the flower beds are flat rose-gold. The paper lanterns the children hold are brighter rose-gold.
The little boy moves like a little girl, carefully, cringing back from others’ movements and from sharp or hard surfaces. His blonde curls will be cut off soon now. His plain nightdress is already wrong. The girl’s lace-trimmed nightdress cuts tight under the arms, and the sleeves are too short. She twirls with the lantern after her father lights it, then climbs the little ladder to hang it on a stake. Her legs are slim and darker rose.
The light falls further. The sky is a warm blue with cooler blue clouds. The blue flowers glow now, and all the whites look hard. The nightdresses appear white for a second, then grey-blue. The father joins the mother up on the balcony, holds her hand and leans into her. The little boy moves like a drowsy ghost in the yard, not chasing fireflies but shrugging when they do not come to him. He shrugs back at the parents in a flirtatious way, puts his jar on the ground.
Myrna thinks there is something a little less than ideal about the boy having been born second. There should be a little sister, later, so that the order no longer matters.
The girl is now pinching a rosebud off the bush, digging her fingernails into it, scattering damp half-formed petals over her head. She likes to pry the fetal plants from from their seeds, likes to pick weeds in the heat of day. She likes to pick apart insects of all kinds but especially the fireflies. She will peel the glowing part off to wear on her finger—look, a ring!
Myrna takes a good look at her the next day while they pick weeds. She is growing too long. The legs are too long, the calves and thighs of the same diameter, like poles, and in the filthy terry shorts, the butt is too round, the back too swayed. The face is indistinct: narrow nose, small eyes behind thick glasses, small mouth with small teeth that do not show when she speaks. Only the hair is perfect, mahogany red in the sun, glowing like Myrna’s own.
While they pick, the boy sits quietly in the shade on a blanket. If a bug crawls across his blanket, he will not molest it in any way. He will watch it with benign interest until it is gone and then will look forward at nothing. Soon the father comes to lie beside him. Soon they are both curled together like sleeping puppies.
In late summer, they sit on the front porch, the most wretched place to sit. The boards are bleached silver and full of splinters, their rails strung with wilted morning glories and the opportunistic Virginia creeper, which is deep green when the other plants start to fail.
The girl works on some packet of extra special summer homework, reciting her vocabulary words in a tone Myrna does not like, over and over: kaleidoscope, iridescent, phosphorescent, on and on.
“What weird words,” Myrna says finally.
“This lesson is on op-tics, the girl says. Do you know what pareidolia means?”
“I do not.”
“It means that we see . . . patterns in chaos. You see faces in the wood of the porch floor.”
“I don’t see faces anywhere,” she says, feeling oddly defensive.
“Sure, there is a face. You see something that looks like a nose, and so your mind works hard to find something you can use for eyes above the nose. It’s natural.”
“ ‘Patterns in chaos.’ That would come from Miss Griggs.”
“I see faces,” Boyd says. They don’t hear.
“It’s nice you’re learning so much, Cassie.” Myrna stirs the ice in the bottom of her glass and steps down off the porch, having spotted a weed.
“It’s nice you’re learning so much,” Cassie says.
“I saw a face in a towel in the bathroom,” Boyd says. “It scared me, that time.”
“It’s nice you’re learning so much, Cassie,” Cassie says.
“It’s nice you’re learning so much, Cassie”
“It’s nice you’re learning so much, Cassie”
“It’s nice you’re learning so much, Cassie”
Boyd starts to cry, all at once. He is sitting there, then he pumps his arms in the air a couple of times, then his face is wet and he is hyperventilating.
“Thanks again, Cassie.” Myrna picks up Boyd and takes him in the house.
Cassie leans down from the lowest porch step and draws the face/vase illusion from the teacher’s handout in the dirt with a stick and it is so beautifully drawn, she thinks, that she needs to make it more permanent. She places dead green beetles where the eyes of the faces would be. She gathers pebbles and uses them to outline the silhouettes of the faces. She places the best of the struggling morning glory vines at the top of the vase, trailing down.
“The reason that you’re able to find things when you go hunting for them is sort of the same reason you see faces everywhere. It’s like if you’re hunting for daisies, and you know what a daisy looks like, you have that picture in front of your eyes, and when there is a daisy there to fit into the picture, you will see it,” Cassie says just as they enter the woods.
“Then I have a picture of a mushroom, and one of a pretty forest flower—not of a daisy—and one of a turtleshell, all at the same time” Myrna says, “since those are what I want to find.”
“You can’t. It doesn’t work that way”
“It does. I can. I am a very able person,” Myrna says, adjusting her gait to miss a slimy patch of wet moss.
Myrna feels good, set for a long walk. She ponders as they walk down the slope and deeper into woods: If Cassie had not known these new vocabulary words, she might have never known the concepts, or maybe she would have gone around saying “that thing, where you see things in other things” instead of pareidolia or “that thing where you see rainbows in the oil” instead of iridescence, sounding like an idiot or crazy person until she learned to stop saying anything about these things—and stop knowing them—just as Myrna had learned to shut up with her own stupid thoughts at a much earlier age than this. These boys just past the woods, devoted to farming and to church, don’t have any mind for such a term. Myrna herself, to tell the truth, has no mind for it even though she once went to college and was forced to try to think that way, but she likes to think she would like to leave such options open to Cassie.
She wonders if Miss Griggs started something that would have started anyway, sooner or later. It’s good, it’s fine, but Cassie will go into a different class next year and will not have another teacher like her here, ever. Cassie must go to some sort of a better school. How? Where? Or maybe “must” is too strong. She can go or not go and it will all be fine either way.
Myrna is skipping now from rock to rock, getting into a trotting rhythm as they descend. Boyd is happily skipping beside her but slips on a mossy rock, falls on his nose. A few drops of blood balance on the broccoli-textured moss, then flatten, staining the inside grey. Boyd is back to howling, holding his mother tight again. Misery is your element, she thinks, then hollers “Cassie, Cassie! Let’s go.” An echo comes back weak.
She walks forward a few more steps to see Cassie in a sunny patch far below, bounding from rock to rock as though weightless. She thinks very deliberately; if this is all you get Cassie, enjoy it. It is wonderful. You feel so strong. You have nothing but healthy memories. You are not troubled, Cassie. She likes to think positive things about Cassie when she can, and the positive thoughts make up a sweet story she tells to herself about herself, so they make her feel good.
Myrna tries again to go exploring. This time she leaves Cassie sleeping and fashions a sling to hold Boyd on her back. He is much too old to be carried about like this, and the father would probably not like it, but the father is off on a job and what are you going to do? “It’s a secret,” she tells Boyd. They walk without incident past the point they had been at the last time, twice as far, three times as far, and then they see it. Or Myrna sees it. With Boyd, who knows what he is seeing or not seeing?
It is a house facing them as they approach, an absurdly large one in the middle of the woods. There appears to be no road to it, or even a trail. The clearing is barely larger than the house itself, tall bare timber obscuring her view of much of its face though they are only a hundred feet away. She wants to say it is called a saltbox but is not sure that is right. It’s been so many years since she thought about things like that. In any case, it is very tall, with three windows above and two below, with the door between them. There is a door in the doorframe but no glass in any of the windows. All of the siding and thick trim pieces are weathered wood, as weathered as the dead wood littering the ground, looking never painted and left out here to rot for what? Fifty years, more?
Myrna unties Boyd from her back to set him on his feet.
She feels elation, a “wow” feeling through her whole body. “What a find, buddy,” she says. “We couldn’t have done better than this.”
Boyd yawns, looks hopeful. “What did we find?”
“Stay here,” she says, and approaches the house alone thinking that such houses have hazards, though what they are without any glass around she does not know. She walks around to the back, three windows above, three below. There is a lot of leaf mold and twigs and whatnot drifted up the sides, small beetles circling up out of it. No windows on either of the sides, no second door. She comes around the front to try the door. There is no knob or any mechanism for one inside the doorknob hole. She pushes and feels that the door must be nailed shut from inside. She turns to approach the window (thinking to look in, climb in?) and feels adrenaline hit her system in what feels like a second or more before she hears the shriek from Boyd.
Then there is the panicked run up the slope with Boyd in her arms, blood pumping out of a gash in his hand, such a long run that her lungs can barely keep up. There is the search for the keys in the mess of the kitchen, the drive to the little town hospital for stitches, the notice while waiting that it’s noon now and they should get something on the drive home. There is the drive home with fragrant fries and messy ice cream cones and Boyd asleep with his head in her lap, bandage and fingers and face all sticky with ice cream and staining her jeans with his drool. Fine salt and grease give a pleasant texture to the steering wheel. This is not the first time he has been rushed to an emergency room and will probably not be the last, but would that every time turned out so sweetly.
Through all of this, she is feeling a muted version of the normal emotions, panic and then concern, relief at the hospital and then the warm flood of good will toward herself and Boyd on the drive home. She feels good, just a little sore in the shins. The pain in the backs and fronts of her thighs will start tomorrow, she knows. God, she has not run like that in years. But right now, she feels good.
The normal emotions and the normal concerns proceed in the order they should, but there is something else too that she would not be able to define if asked and that she is barely aware of. It is the heavy, inchoate static of dread. It has been building for some time and will announce itself as she lifts Boyd, sleeping, from the truck. It will build to a higher pitch the instant she is aware of it, and in the minute it takes to approach the door it will rise higher and higher until she wants to drop him and hold her ears instead, though of course the sound is from the inside and not the outside.
The father is home, squatting and leaning forward, hands on her knees as she sits back in an easy chair. He is talking and then screaming. She can hear it all to a point but not clearly. It is likely that he is speaking a language she does not know because she can hear him, sure, but she cannot understand.
There are people in the fields, people starting into the forest, not a lot of people. She watches from the balcony and begins to count them but then grows too tired. They have vests that glow. Their dogs are having a good time.
A man is getting a glass of water in the kitchen when she goes down there. She smiles and asks if she can make him a cup of coffee. He looks puzzled, thanks her but no. She is about to leave and then comes to the fridge, takes off the class photo.
“If you look at this before you go hunting, it will make it easier. This thing is, if you see the thing in your mind, you will have like a map of it in your mind, and then when you go hunting for it, you will know it when you see it. Cassie—actually—it was Cassie who told me that.”
The man looks long at the picture, then hands it back.
“No, you take it,” Myrna says. “You can study it before you go back out.”
Myrna is feeling better now. She is worried, sure, but there are so many hands at work that there is nothing she needs to do, for once. She holds Boyd in her lap all day, stroking his bandage on the outside, careful not to touch the palm. She answers their questions politely when they come in.
The father comes in and takes Boyd from her to, sets him on his feet. He takes her hand and leads her out to the front porch. Here are two lines like rivers made of little pebbles. He wants to know what this is. “A map?” she guesses. If it is a map, of what? A map maybe to where the girl has gone? She doesn’t think so. She doesn’t know.
He leads her again—by the wrist, not the hand—to the shed. There is a little craft project going on the bench, with the ice cube trays set out to hold the little items. In one there are sequins, pins, and beads. In the other, parts of insects and flowers, seeds and pebbles. He takes a translucent turtleshell smaller than a silver dollar and looks at it there in his hand. He picks out a locust husk.
“What were these for?” he asks.
“It’s probably summer homework. She had so much of that.”
Miss Griggs was questioned, intensely they said. There was nothing to suggest involvement, but she had taken such a heightened interest in the girl that the father was sure there must be something. There was nothing more to the story than a spark between an overeager young teacher from the city and a smart little girl, they told the parents. They did not tell the parents that they’d asked many people about the mother, too. There was nothing more to the story than that she was a little prim, maybe a little more focused on the boy than the girl, but that was natural with him being so young and so adorable and the girl being a little “on the spectrum” or whatever.
They found a few more lines crafted in pebbles out around the property, and a few arrangements that the girl must have made but of which they could make no sense. One, a mouse with legs of other mice sewn on, was turned in to the police but never mentioned to the parents. There was debate about whether it was an inexpert piece of taxidermy or some kind of charm. A block of weathered wood with twelve rectangles scratched into it, six on two of its sides, was not thought to be related to the girl at all and was tossed into the brush by one of the searchers.
Then there was nothing to do but focus on Boyd. He needed to be watched in case there was an outsider involved. There was talk about moving, but that would be too much trouble even if it were not exactly wrong to do. And the community had been so supportive, how could they think of going away?
“They searched the house thoroughly, I guess,” she says some time later. She is twenty weeks into a pregnancy that is making her feel less sad about the past. She thinks the baby will be a little girl, the kind of little sister she has always hoped would bring out the best in Boyd. He will love her and will focus on her. She will be dirty blonde like Boyd and his father.
“You were here,” the father says, “but you don’t remember. They searched the crawlspace. They practically took apart the shed.”
“Oh yes,” Myrna says. She wants to say no, the other house, the house out in the woods. She wonders what they did with it when they found it. They knocked it down, she hopes. It was a hazard though solid enough and with absolutely no glass.
At night, she becomes agitated. She resents the thought that keeps occurring: the house. I never actually opened my mouth and mentioned the house, did I? In all of that time when I was dreaming about it every night and seeing her there, fallen from the second story or hiding crouched in the corner, I never actually opened my mouth. I was dreaming of her haunting it after that. I was dreaming she had tiled every floor with mosaics of pebbles and papered the walls in leaves and the wings of insects. At first I think I thought I had already said it because I was so confused, and then when I realized I had not said it, I thought they must have found it anyway. They were so thorough. They had dogs.
“I love her already. It hurts,” Boyd says one day when they are sitting up in bed with a picture book. He looks so much older in his plaid pajamas. His eyes are wet and he pulls toward Myrna, but he’s not pulling in on himself the way he once would have. He embraces the belly instead. It is so big now that the navel has popped up, and he touches it with the tip of his finger.
“We have to wait until she comes before we go,” he says.
“What?” Myrna says, feeling repelled by him, which she does not expect. What she feels is a brief flash of loyalty to Cassie. What do you know about her? she wants to say. They have not talked about it, he and Myrna, though the father must have done some of that. It is the kind of thing that he would think to do.
“I mean the baby,” he says. “We don’t want the baby to fall.”
She sees, then, what he means. “Yes, we have to wait.”
“And while we wait, we don’t have to think nothing,” he says.
“Anything,” she says.
“Anything at all.” He smiles and turns back to the book, and they go on reading.
The baby is so strong, they can’t believe her, and ravenous. The best baby in the whole world, everyone agrees. Boyd is a little man now. He helps with everything. He is so gentle. The family couldn’t have done any better.
In midsummer they sit on chairs on the porch with the baby between them. She is quiet and good even in the heat, and they protect her from the sun with a pink umbrella that makes everything under it glow pink. Boyd has never seen so much pink in his life, and he tells Myrna it makes him feel safe just to see all of the pink things and the pretty clothes and stuffed animals that fill up the house now.
Dandelions grow up between the succulents now. Thistles grow up through the rosebushes, and the Virginia creeper smothers any other vine that might have once competed.
Boyd tells Myrna about what kindergarten is going to be like. There will be a teacher, and a teacher is like a mother but not as nice and not as pretty. The teacher teaches and you learn, but you play too. You play and play until you are so tired that you take a nap, and after the nap there is orange drink in a carton, chocolate milk, or white milk. There are cookies that the moms bring in, kept in a closet in the back, and the teacher picks two students each time to go and get them after nap. And you will have a best friend named Kiera Jean Jack.
“There is a green drink sometimes,” Myrna says. He has generalized all the things she told him about her kindergarten. It’s sweet to hear him talk so long at a stretch.
“Only sometimes,” Boyd says, “and when there is I will not drink it.”
“And you’ll learn to read,” she says.
“Maybe,” he says.
She dries her hands on her apron after breakfast dishes, and Boyd takes them in his. The father took him into town last month for a real haircut. His hair looks darker and is already growing tendrils at the edges. He holds her hands and says he wants to go for a walk.
The baby in a sling on the front of her, Myrna picks her way carefully down the slope, so alert to every sensation. The forest is loud with the creek sounds and insects and birds and thick with the wet and earthy smells. The lurid green of the ferns stands against a chaotic background of old leaf litter, rocks and moss. The shafts of sun come in through small gaps in the cover, lighting up the tiny insects that move like schools of fish. She keeps her feet from stamping down on the dead wood, the moss, the occasional dark salamander moving away from her. The strong horizontals of the trunks have a louver effect, letting her see a part and then another part of the background as she passes, but not all at once. She is feeling good, feeling vigilant but not frightened.
Boyd walks ahead but not too far. He’s being careful where to step. The walk is long. She stops for a time to pee and then to nurse the baby. She takes her shoes off, rubs her feet.
She and Boyd do not talk, but they glance at each other from time to time. This is a hunt and, if what they want is not in front, it may be to the side or even back a ways. Their paths become confused. The baby is awake again and fussing softly.
“Maybe we should go back,” Myrna says. The diaper is alright now, but she didn’t bring a second change.
“Maybe,” Boyd says, but he keeps moving forward. He stops, holds his head as though he has a crushing headache, or is he covering his ears?
When he turns back around he is crying. His face is red. “No,” he says. “I see something right over there.”
He turns back away from Myrna and pushes forward, faster now. The woods are so thick here that they can’t move straight for more than a few feet. He couldn’t have seen it; there’s nothing visible ahead, even now, and now they are a hundred yards further than when he said it.
Then she sees it through trees, at first nothing more than a hint of vertical line through the louvers of the trunks, gray behind gray. She sees the vertical line of rooftop begin to form and then as she begins descending, the darker shapes of windows.
Boyd is far ahead now, stopped and facing the lower left window. The dread doesn’t come as she thought it would. She coos to the baby, makes her way down to Boyd calm and slow.
When she has reached him and looks at him from the side, he looks so drained that she thinks he will collapse, but he stands still. She pulls the baby to the side so that she can be close enough to peer in the window. She looks in at exactly what she expected to see, darkness and then far back in the static, a patch of rosy color and a dim glint of hair. The light barely reaches. Boyd is not tall enough to see inside. He turns away, strokes the scar on his hand.
How did you know? she thinks. I dreamed it like this, but I didn’t know. They turn from the window and walk forward a few steps.
He is crying hard but does not reach for her. “I saw a face. It was hurt.”
She was in here hurt but still alive, but you didn’t want me to know, she thinks. So you cut yourself to pull me away from her. Or, you knew something was going to happen, so you took us away before it did. In either case the same, you wanted to let it happen.
“But there was nothing you could do,” she says. It may as well be true.
“May-be,” he hitches. He is starting to hyperventilate, but he sits and breathes deeply, hugs his arms around himself, calms down. His face when he looks up is serious but not upset.
“Is there something there behind you?” he says. He is squinting, tilting his head.
Myrna thinks of what it might be behind her. The house, no house but Cassie in a pile of leaves, or nothing, more trees.
“Did we find something or not?” He asks. “I can’t remember. I thought we were hunting for something.”
“Did we find something?” She says. “No, we didn’t.” She does not look back but takes his hand and starts back up toward home.
About the Author
Christi Nogle is a longtime college composition teacher who lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cat. You can listen to more of her stories at Escape Pod, Tales to Terrify, and The Wicked Library–or read her most recent stories in the literary journals Vastarien and Hermine Annual.
Her story “Cubby” won the Portable Story Series’s Time Travel contest. You can listen to actress Lili Taylor read it here. This contest offers professional narration and recording and gives listeners the opportunity to donate to charitable organizations when they download stories.
About the Narrator
Dagny Paul is a lapsed English teacher, failed artist, and sometimes writer who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies, which she consumes whenever her five-year-old son will let her (which isn’t often). Dagny was Assistant Editor of PseudoPod, and guest editor for Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising 3 event in 2017.
About the Artist
Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.