a tale by ruby waters

by Kaitlin Allen

 

[here is the summer I fell]

My feet’d sunk an inch in the mossy bank, I’d been standing by the creek so long.

It was cool there and dark, shaded from the sun by sapling leaves that made everything, even my skin, beautiful, alive and green.

They had told me never to cross Little Creek. My mama, my daddy, my teachers, they told us all.

It’s not safe on the other side, they’d said, and they were right.

But even after everything, the fear and the pain that lasted, I can’t come to regret taking those steps, my toes gripped on smooth stones, fingers holding the rolled edges of my jeans above cool water.

I’ve always had the mind that knowing is better than not. It was worth the price, to me, for open eyes.

[no, I can’t seem to regret it at all, but then, I ain’t claiming to be clean]

I stepped across, and that was it.

Standing in the moss-green shadows, they grabbed me.

They grabbed me one on each side so smooth I couldn’t help thinking they’d done this before, knew just how to hold without me being able to strike. Creatures who could hold a flame without getting burnt, not that I was that bright.

[not yet]

I couldn’t see them, but they spoke, and I learned their voices.

One sounded an old man, the other a young woman.

Must’ve been the woman who covered my eyes beneath a palm ’cause the hand felt full-fleshed and smooth.

My arms were dragged out straight to the side. Their arms making a cross to hold me. Fingers clawed ’round my wrist, nails for nails.

Then the first bite came, and that was all I could think of.

The flat, sharp blade of teeth pierced inside my elbow. Lips slid wet on my skin, and I felt sick. I struggled, but I couldn’t escape the grip, and my fighting tore their teeth further along my skin.

It seemed a long time to me, but I fear it might’ve been short, ’fore I gave up.

Everything came harder, thinking, breathing. All over, I was so weak, I wondered at my heart still beating.

Then the man spoke again, this time at me.

“Don’t know how fast they’ll find you, how soon they’ll miss you, how far they’ll look, but if you get found in time, you tell your granny I ain’t forgot her.”

I’d trouble grasping hold of sound, but I thought his voice sounded younger, stronger, smoother than before.

The woman laughed, said, “You’ll have to tell me ’bout that sometime.”

She lifted me easily and carried me out before her in her arms. Eyes uncovered, I looked for her face, but she was foggy in the green and in the shadows that swung close.

She set me down in the stream, left me there with a pat to the side of my still-clean white shirt.

I wondered at that, how they could take so much of my blood and not spill any.

It was spilling now, leaking out red ’cross the stones, along the ripples ’til it spread out and the water was clear-green again.

That’s how I felt, spread out far enough to be unseen.

It hurt. I won’t lie and say there wasn’t pain, but mostly I felt weary, thin and picked over.

I tried so to hold on to what I’d heard, the bits I’d seen because this wasn’t everyday life. They’d marked me with a secret as sure as their teeth, and I should hold it close, but like blood it was slipping from beneath my skin, and I couldn’t quite grasp the strain.

[the stain]

The world was spotty with black, and the green was fading, first, from Little Creek, then, from me.

ruby waters

calling my name and it made me laugh.

Course, this is where I was, you could track the red upstream, the ruby.

ruby

I laughed again, choked or sobbed.

I hiccupped long gasps against the moss and then, against a chest.

Zee’d found me.

[didn’t know his name yet, this is when we met]

It was hard to see past the black shadows as he moved me around. My head pounded, a stronger current than the one I was laying in, a heavier beat than my worn-out heart.

I could feel him tying me, faraway rips of fabric and knots snug against my skin.

Good, I thought or maybe said.

that’ll keep the secrets in

Just now, I won’t be spilling anymore.

He picked me up and carried me away from the woods, from the green, from the water, but the red followed us.

Dripping.

Beating in what was left of me, it sunk into my weary, torn-down heart.

I started falling then, but for the day or the light, for the stream or the secret, for them or for him, I didn’t yet know.

[came to love a good many things that day, and none of them was kind to me]

My granny came to me in the hospital, my mama’s mama. She sat herself by the side of my bed and stayed. Seemed wrong how the chair was plastic and metal with unrocking feet firm on the ground.

There were teeth marks in the crooks of my arms, bruises down the veins, fingernail scratches braceleting my wrists. A bag of blood hung heavy above my head draining its way back into me.

“He told me he ain’t forgot you,” I said.

But the one who found me was there before I could get her to answer.

He walked in and stood next to the bed, and I knew him by his hands.

“Zebedee,” he said, “but you go on and call me Zee.”

I watched those hands.

They swung heavy at the ends of his arms while he talked, callused and strong, tips stained with tobacco, blood red-brown dark beneath the nails.

“We moved in next door to you, my folks and I,” he said “I offered to help when your daddy came knocking.”

He looked at me as if waiting, but I couldn’t divine what he wanted.

“Thank you for finding me,” I said or maybe thought ’cause he gave no answer.

“That’s enough now,” Granny said, and he was gone.

That’s enough.

I fretted with the gauze wrapped around my arms, worried the white ’til the blood stained up through.

Couldn’t stop pushing for red to see it, proof I was still there, tied up tight with a heart beating bloody inside of me.

Granny took my hands in hers—skinny, knotted, and backed with thick veins.

“You’re gonna have to stop that reaching,” she said, “’cause you won’t never be sure of your heart again.”

“You goin’ tell me what you’re talking about?” I said, and she laughed.

Anger flashed through bright hot, new and frightening as it tore me up.

I’d have grabbed her then, pressed her wrist between my fingers ’til the bones creaked only she had hold of me first.

And I was weak.

She squeezed my fingers tight in her gnarled knuckles leaning in close.

“Child, you think that’s something you got when demons cut their teeth against your skin?” She laughed again. “Well, maybe it is. But what if it ain’t? You weren’t the first to go stepping where you shouldn’t.”

I yanked my hands away and pressed ’em to my ears, bandage scratchy on my face.

Her words poured round anyway, circling down into my skull:

“Should’ve known the itch’d get to wiggling in your bones. That’s the reason we named you after rocks the color of new blood, the reason you crossed the stream in the first place.

“Now listen. You can let this wreck you, spread you out fit to float to sea. Or you take hold of the fact you’ve seen a piece of holiness fallen. And what that means is, you can steal it.”

“Okay,” I said, “all right.” My hands fell to my lap, stitches torn. “And how do I go ’bout doing that?”

“You ought to know. It’s the oldest story. You want what somebody else has, you kill ’em and take it.”

“That what you did?”

“No, child. If I’d done that I wouldn’t be old, wouldn’t’ve had no children. It’s a sacrifice, see? I found something I wanted more, but that don’t mean you have to.”

“I’d be monster then,” I said, “not human.”

“You’re working on the supposition you’ve a clean heart to lose. Don’t think so highly of your own kind. I swear this to you—you are goin’ get blood on your hands one day. All us women do. Might as well be worth something.”

[I hid what she said next to the fallen things gathered from the ground]

When I didn’t need nothing but scabs to hold me closed, I took up with the strong-handed neighbor boy and with the family knife.

Zee walked me down to the water ’cause I asked him.

We went down, and it wasn’t to pray.

It was cool and clear when I dipped my toes in, clear, cool and tinted green, the stones on the bottom a slick-smooth grey-brown.

“That’s enough now,” he said holding onto my arm above the elbow, above the scars he never cared to look at.

There, by the green-light sound of the water and by the blade I’d wrapped close against me, I finally knew him.

Anew, I heard his voice.

“Your hands,” I said. “They always were too heavy.”

He dropped his grip as I turned to face him, said, “What’re you talking ’bout?”

I ran my fingers up his arm, his shoulder, stopped to rest my hand at the base of his neck, my thumb against his pulse.

Or it could’ve been my pulse echoing back.

He leaned in close, his mouth on mine.

We were both hungry, only not for the same things.

[now, that may be a straight-up lie]

So, I stabbed him in the heart.

He coughed, frowned and gasped as I twisted that cold metal all around just like Granny had told me.

“Make sure the heart’s good and gone when you find ’em,” she’d said handing me the knife, “else they’ll rise up again, back and angry.”

With that cold, old will, I carved a hole in his chest, followed him down to the ground as he fell, felt the shaking scrape of metal on bone.

I cut the heart out of him in pieces, bloody chunks of muscle on the tip of a blade, ’til he stopped breathing.

[’til finally, his heart stopped beating]

I sat back on my heels, my breath coming hard. Sat back and licked the blood from the sides of the blade, from the handle, from my hand.

I fell back to mop up darkening red with my tongue

[’til my heart stopped beating too]

When I crossed Little Creek for the last time, the water carried away blood again, but it wasn’t mine.

She came for me as I stepped in the shadows.

“Foolish child,” she said, and I thought the same of her.

Echoing words, a pulse taken by thumb.

“You come here to die, Foolish?” she asked me.

Her eyes were dark enough I could see my anger reflected in them. A fire banked deep inside her, skin stretched o’er hollow bone.

I grinned fit to match the old bitten scars along her skin, said, “That what happened to you?”

“Yeah,” she said, “but I didn’t die.”

“Neither’ve I.”

“Not yet,” she said.

“No,” I said.

[not yet]

She reached for my arm as if she could stretch me out again to bite, but I dove at her hard knocking her back to the ground.

It was her turn to grin when I perched over her, my blade to her throat.

“It’s already got you, hadn’t it?” she said. “Now, who is it you been killing?”

“You tell me, honey,” I said. “Tell me. Should I eat your heart, too?”

“Oh, I hadn’t got one, sister, and neither’ve you.”

She clawed up a handful of dirt and threw it at my face.

I closed my eyes against the grains and slit her throat.

She lay there gurgling, wheezing, staring me down until the blood stopped spurting from her neck. I watched as the skin fell back together beneath the red.

[that was when I really believed]

“It’s true,” I said standing up and backing off.

“You already knew that,” her first words from her fresh-scarred throat. “They’ll be coming soon, calling your name, thinking you lost yourself again.”

Watching her still, I licked the blood from my knife.

“I have lost myself,” I said, “but it’s all right. Wasn’t trying to get nowhere anyway.”

We waited in silence a bit. Both of us waiting for the man, her old man, my young one, to rise back up, knowing all the while he wouldn’t.

His broken heart spread out in pieces inside of me, his blood floated to the sea.

“He dead, then?” she asked.

“I killed him,” I said and it was an offering, my sacrifice.

She nodded accepting.

Her hands were dirty. She didn’t try to wipe the drying blood from off her neck.

“You coming with me?” she said.

I gave her my knife, flung it out at her, and she caught it.

She caught it straight through her right palm, blade in between bone and out through the back of her hand.

She caught it and laughed.

So, I said, “It’s you who’s coming with me.”

The knife was dark and wet again when she tugged it free. She wiped it clean enough on the side of her shirt and tucked it in her belt.

She held out her hand and we shook. Her hand was warm and pulling against mine as it healed.

“I’m Ruby,” I said.

New, bright red smeared between our hands; old, dark red ringed her neck.

She smiled baring her bloodstained teeth.

“I’m Garnet.”

 

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