BY LAUREN DAVIS
The children drowned on a Sunday. Three of them. All newborns. The rest of the deaths came the Sundays after.
It took us all awhile to figure out the cause of death, since none of them were around water when they drowned, except Tony, taking a bath. The others, though, they were sleeping or up in sycamores or sitting at their cramped kindergarten craft tables. Sally Star was making a mud pie. George Thompson, a valentine.
By the time the FBI got involved, we had lost twenty babies and toddlers. We didn’t talk of it at the time, but there were fifteen miscarriages, too. The real number is probably higher, but who wants to share these things? My grief couldn’t catch up with me. Still hasn’t. I went hard as rime ice.
They had lots of questions for everyone, the agents. Scribbled a lot of stuff down. Stared at everyone a real long time if they stumbled on their words. And of course the press, may they all rot in hell, even the sound guys.
My brother-in-law tried to explain it to me, how they knew it was drowning. He talked about water in the stomach and bloody froth in the airways. I got up and filled a glass from the kitchen sink and walked out the room. I opened the sliding glass doors to the backyard and left, right into the woods in my slippers. There were a lot of women like me, going around in pajamas and unmade faces. Still are. New footpaths have formed in the forest from our wandering.
I didn’t have a child to lose. My one son, Cal, was nineteen and at seminary. Three hours and fifteen minutes from my doorstep. Even then, I worried for him. I ran my fingers over his daddy’s urn and prayed.
My Cal, his first word “love.” First steps, into my arms. All his years, one single tussle over a friend’s honor during an away game. A damn good man, that’s what they say.
And then, there were no more drownings. Within the year the FBI packed up, the press left. They called it bad forensics. A virus had run its course. Not a drowned child in the ground, save little Tony, they said. But we knew the truth. There were no more children to lose.
And why was it here? Could have been the water. Could have been the soil. But we are a fine town. We take care of each other. You’ve never seen a DMV line move with such finesse, jellied candies and cookies on each counter. Never seen cows so tranquil, munching their miles of bright green grass. Even through the drownings we didn’t gossip. We kept our doors unlocked. A lesser town would have torched itself in a fistful of days.
The knock came on a Sunday evening. I recognize my neighbors’ knocks. Mrs. Gladys has a real soft one, three taps. Frank’s is a persistent bang like a mechanical hammer. The UPS woman—two hard raps. This knock, though, I hadn’t heard before.
“Mrs. Smith?” the man said, his hands grasped behind him when I answered the door. I saw the dullness of his suit. His skin as pale as a newborn’s.
May he never forgive me. I slapped him. He didn’t even flinch.
“Mrs. Smith?” he repeated, cleared his throat. “May we come in? My name is Richard, from Roanoke Seminary. And this is Father Arnold.” Behind Richard stood a chaplain with a turned face.
I stepped aside.
Cal had drowned. In his bed. There was an investigation. They didn’t understand yet, but they would soon.
But I knew what happened. You let the light in, and you don’t run it out, it gets big and fat and happy. It spreads its greedy paws over each inch of land and love you’ve got.
I turned the coffee table upside down. I lay fetal on the couch. Richard, he was in no hurry. He sat on my late husband’s wingback until I learned to breathe again. Father Arnold hung his head. It might have been days that passed.
“Can we call someone to sit with you?” Richard asked.
I moved my eyes to the urn. “I got him,” I said.
Richard nodded, moved to leave. Father Arnold walked out my door having never spoken a word.
“One thing, Mrs. Smith,” Richard said. He seemed small in the breezeway, his voice low. If he hadn’t been the messenger of death, I would have called his eyes kind.
He looked sideways at Father Arnold’s silhouette in the darkening yard. But he didn’t say anything more, just lowered his gaze and left.
Richard came to see me again. He didn’t bring any gospel. Just stood in the kitchen and ran his eyes over each family photo on the fridge. He asked about Cal’s life before seminary. Wanted to know what he did in his free time. What kind of girls he liked. Said they had been good friends. He had learned a lot from Cal. He asked about the drowned children, too, what we knew. Which was nothing, officially speaking, and I told him as much.
I didn’t mind his visit. Or the next. Or the one after that. It was nice to have someone to talk with. Richard drove so far I made sure I fed him both meat and vegetables. He started showing every Friday evening, and I would make Cal’s old bed for him. It felt right before I knew why it should.
“I knew Cal real personally.” Richard folded his hands, pushed his plate of toast aside. “Did you know that?” he asked me.
“Of course,” I told him. “That’s why you stay in my home like a son.”
Richard took my hand. “I loved him, was going to ask him to marry me.”
I fixed his gaze.
He said, “Cal knew it was coming for him. Knew it because he dreamed it. I don’t know about these sorts of things. I had laughed him off.” He squared his shoulders. “Now I have dreams.”
I held a palm to his forehead. His lower lip trembled. He must have been good to Cal. It looks for the purest ones first.
“Get some sin in you, son, and you’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s the only cure I know.”
And it was, still is.
He left me there, pulled out of the driveway a little too fast. No turn signal, running up on the curb like a man meant to survive.
Lauren Davis is the author of Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press). She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her work can be found in publications such as Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Empty Mirror, and Lunch Ticket. Davis teaches at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA, and she works as an editor at The Tishman Review.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
Published February 13th, 2019