by Honor McElroy
My wife used to whisper bits of her academic universe before we fell asleep. She would trail her fingertips over my arms; she talked me down from my day. “The Alogonquin named the thousand acres of forest behind our house Pocomoke. A beautiful word. It means black water. Black because of the mud and black because of the long, dark river. The forest has always been a place of other: bootleggers, smugglers, and deserting soldiers. The Underground Railroad too. Robbed Confederate graves. There’s tons of lore: the ghosts of slaves hanging from bridges, midnight women stepping in front of cars from the trees, small animals laid out in patterns over the roads, pairs of Red Tail hawks, Indian mounds that rise up one day and disappear the next. Black magic, love.”
When I first came home after our screams pinned hate to the walls, I knew I needed some kind of wilderness, even as I broke the panes of the back door, yelling out the name of my wife, already knowing she was gone. I gathered the two burner, my army roll, the tent, a little food, and a lot of whiskey.
For weeks now I’ve lived in the Pocomoke, a hybrid of Cyprus swamp and Loblolly forest that slowly recovers from a tree holocaust when logging made too many boxes for men: coffin, door, house, and ship.
The magic I’ve seen here happens when the dusk burns so bright that it lingers until dawn, but then maybe that’s me trying not to go mad. At night the noise takes on monstrous proportions. I hear the rustling sounds that follow me: the strange high calls of birds sound like women singing, the wind rushes until the leaves hiss, and, every now and then, something soft brushes my neck. After a while fear saturates you, jangles your nerves so much that walking becomes floating. Whiskey and adrenaline make rapid shots to the heart. Death feels simple. The silence brings it out– how close it is, just waiting, so easy.
Tonight, I go down to a little cove fed by the deep, narrow river. I’ve watched the moon gain a little each night. This will be her fullest. How did I craft a life that was previously so oblivious to the tide of her blue, dappled light on the forest floor?
I pull out a bar of soap and hang my clothes from a low branch. I step bit by bit into the water, scrubbing until my skin burns, then swim out into the deeper water to rinse. The moon makes silver coins out of the ripples. I float a good long time on my back, cool and empty, listening to the noises underneath the water until a shimmer catches my eye, then a splash.
I clamp my mouth over a gasp when I see the long arch of a woman’s back rising out of the water. Her silver spun hair drags in the water, and her skin shines with white fire. My arms and legs push forward without command. She turns toward me. My body seems to break apart as I glimpse the bone hill of her belly, the dove breasts, the stem of her neck, the eyes like plums. Claire. Ghost of my living wife made from my own mind, almost ghost made from my living hand. The night sky waves a thousand starry flags around this mirage of my wife.
Claire pays me no mind. She cups water, letting it fall and glisten over her skin until I am ten feet away, but the moment I reach her, she dives underwater, resurfacing farther into the river where the currents are stronger. I cut my way through the water. Her laugh skips backward. I am almost to the middle of the river when it begins to really pull. Claire dissolves, and as the seam of the sky tears open, black waters tumble around me.
The river spits me up three miles away, where I lay in the sulfurous stink of swamp, with the cicadas rattling a battle drum, and the water still lapping my body.
I make it back to my camp just before dawn and fall asleep only to dream of my wife. Of course, I dream of her. Men will never amount to more than dreams of women. In my dream I see all of the different kinds of my wife. I see a thousand fish swimming inside her mind. I see the glacier of seconds advance over her skin. I see the warrior wife and the poet wife. I dream of the perfect gesture for return.
It takes me all of the next day to walk back. Softly, I creep up over the yard. The panes are fixed, but the knob turns in my hand.
I sink beside Claire in bed, and when she gasps, I kiss her temple.
“It’s only me, baby.”
Then I give her the story, the story of her black magic in an ancient forest. By the time I’m finished, I hear the first sounds of dawn, but I don’t pretend that beginnings are that easy, so I walk back through the forest, and I wait by the river for my wife to find me.
Honor McElroy lives and teaches in Santo Domingo with her husband and son. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Citron Review, Main Street Rag, and the OAH Magazine of History.