Death and the Maiden

by Pam Jones

Mari_Lwyd_(wiki)
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobby_horse#/media/File:Mari_Lwyd_(wiki).jpg

Here’s Edie in a yellow dress.

It must have been May Day, I’m not anywhere in sight, being born in June. You can see the Morris dancers and the galloping Hobby Hosses in the street, fuzzily. They are jerky, skeletons of rough wood under papier-mache painted black and goggling white, manes of yarn, and capes of black tarpaulin. They have the legs of men, just recognizably human enough to scare the hell out of you.

Edie is trying to get her mouth around the bulb of a popsicle, cherry, so that its juices smear across her mouth like the lipstick Big Sister wears but isn’t allowed to. Big Sister must not have been watching, or she’d have made sure those little red drops hadn’t fallen and stained Edie’s yellow dress. The Hobby Hosses look hungry. Edie swears that’s what she heard the Old Hoss tell her, under the wheeze of accordions.

Edie, a year to the day later and wearing the same dress (a bit tighter), kneels over a bassinette with a mummy inside: me. I’m bawling under the corduroy overalls, the blue socks that soak in baby’s sweat, the brown leather booties that rub my heels, and the blue cap that someone stuck on with the visor in the back. Edie’s hair isn’t completely blonde if she stands at this angle, the strands at her left temple turn a deeper gold in this blend of sun and shadow, and she’s struggling with the French braid that Big Sister has wound her hair into. Gran, though you can’t see her, waves her spotted hands and tells Edie to stop chewing on the end of her braid. Come here and let me put your hair up; I’ve got some pins somewhere… Edie—lip out—whines that it hurts the top of her head.

You’ll turn into a horse, chewing like that.

The Hobby Hosses, far away but alert, raise their heads. Blue Ribbon Hoss, on the left, bares his teeth and Old Hoss, still going strong on the right, fixes Edie with a bulbous eye. There’s a spark there that bounces from the height of the sun to the metal of Gran’s pins.

The Hobby Hosses whinny. Edie opens her mouth, a red hole of a scream that no one seems to hear.

Another year. I’ve outgrown the corduroys, which is why my cousin Anthony is wearing them. There’s Edie, and there’s me, flanking the bassinette, Edie on the right in the yellow dress and me on the left in khakis. We’re fidgeting in our casual best. There’s a tag in the dress that itches to bite and I reach to scratch, while Edie tugs at her collar. Mama asks us if we can hold still.

I jog to our usual spot by the Big Tree. It’s actually not the tallest tree, but it’s got the lowest and thickest branches of them all. That way, Edie says, we can see the street and hide if we need to. Behind us you can see the green whirl of the spriggans decked in ivy to hide their ugliness, slobbering at the tail end of the Morris dancers, whom you know are hurling sweets into the crowd as we speak.

I’m torn.

It’s not that I don’t remember the Hobby Hosses: Black bulbs for eyes and lips that curve to show bigger teeth than you can imagine any animal to have, aren’t things that you forget.

I have to ask, Why am I supposed to be afraid of them?

Edie frowns. She is not supposed to be here. She knows that, the Hosses know that.

 

***

 

My friend Micah from school has a fistful of sweets, collected from the Morris dancers. You can’t see what kinds he has, but I remember: Snickers and Jolly Ranchers, peanut butter cups, and those special chocolates with fruit in the middle, Edie’s favorite. It’s Sunday, Micah wears the bowtie he hates with the white button down tucked into his pants. I’m ogling his big candy haul, drooling a little, and Micah is handing me a peanut butter cup because his mother asked him to.

Edie doesn’t want anything, not even when I offer her the chocolate with fruit in the middle that Micah gave me. You can see her in the Big Tree. She’s straddling the lowest branch, which is canopied by the rest of the tree. All you can really make out of her is a leg.

From far away, a melodeon whinnies.

There are four of them, Old Hoss and Blue Ribbon Hoss leading two bucking Junior Hosses by their reins. The Junior Hosses snort, snuffle, and grunt at the Big Tree, teeth gnashing, more canine than colt and foal. Old Hoss and Blue Ribbon Hoss shush them, but eye the leg that droops from the Big Tree. Her foot, blurred mid-swing, is taut, toes curled, and then flees beneath her dress.

The parade is turning out from under the arch that connects the second floors of the barbershop and bookstore. The procession has transformed anything familiar into a confusion of creatures. Most of the parade is a beautiful deformation of human and animal: Jack-and-the-Green whips a lizard’s tail from beneath his vines; the Morris dancers try to keep their beaks in place, and work their way around canary’s wings that leak golden feathers into the air; sheepdogs rumble astride motorcycles, and hurl confetti from the shopping bags. Big Sister, in the second row, pumps the buttons of her melodeon with mechanical boredom. Like all the accordionists, she’s dressed in choir robes and glittering moth’s wings strapped to her back.

The Hobby Hosses tail the procession, the four of them trotting through the arch and whinnying for the pleasure of the crowd. The Junior Hosses flank the company of Old Hoss and Blue Ribbon Hoss, Old on the left, Blue Ribbon on the right. Edie straddles the shoulders of Blue Ribbon Hoss, who has just come into the midday sun. Her yellow dress is gone. She’s in a one-piece costume, an old black jumpsuit painted over with bones, tiny ribcage, femurs, the splinters that make her feet and hands. Her face is white with greasepaint, her eyes ringed black.

The hosses have crowned Edie with lilies.

And they are gone.

 

***

 

To be clear, I’ve never seen Edie.

I have pieces of her. As I get bigger, so does Edie.

The yellow dress is at the back of Mama’s closet, packed away in the box that it came in when Edie was born. Gran bought it a few sizes too big, so that Edie would grow into it as she got older.

I’ve seen the two good pictures we have of her, the ones that were taken in those two weeks she was alive. There is one that my parents keep of her, a little turnover cramped in the bassinette that I claimed two years later. Gran has a shot of her that must have been taken on the one and only day that they were allowed to bring her home.

But I don’t like those photos. Baby Edie reminds me of a special I saw once on the History Channel, about mummies and what you did to keep the body as alive-looking as you could. They talked about a family in Sicily that managed to keep their infant daughter fresh for eighty years.

They said she looked as though she could wake up at any minute.

 

***

 

You’re not allowed to be in the May Day parade until you’re at least ten.

I am the tail of the parade, my friend Micah and me, supervised by my dad. My jobs are to rush into the crowd, to burrow my mask into the face of an audience member, to fire webs of Silly String, to hurl sweets when the younger ones start clamoring at the edge of the street. There I am and there’s Micah; he’s spraying green Silly String into the face of the girl he likes but pretends not to. I’m firing the sweets at the younger ones instead of just tossing them, which makes my dad growl at me from under his mask, Stop that, you’re not bowling!

Gran asks me to keep my mask on one minute more. I’m sweating beneath the papier-mâché and the black tarpaulin that we’ve converted into a cape. Strike a pose! Come on, don’t just stand there. Oh, no, no, you should turn around and let me see your tail. Maybe we should get your, what’s your friend’s name? Mikey?

The Big Tree has always been wider than it is tall. My mask, nodding toward the bag of leftover sweets from the parade, fixes me with a bulbous eye. Junior Hoss, at least the one that I knew, has been feckless but friendly. He nuzzles the opening of the bag for the special chocolates with fruit in the middle. I have two, they’re all his if he wants them. He promises to give them to Edie when he sees her.

 

 

Pam Jones lives and writes in Austin, Texas. She studied creative writing at Hampshire College, and is the author of the novella, The Biggest Little Bird.

Twitter: @PanimalJones
Instagram: @PanimalJones

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