A Deformity

(Originally published 8-27-04)
When I was a child I lived in a house on the side of a mountain in Tennessee, terraced with granite walls built by slaves, and with a springhouse where cold, pure water filled a stone basin. There were spirits in the house, because it had been owned by a couple who divided it down the middle following a quarrel, and never spoke to each other until they died.

The true story is unknown to me because I am growing older, and childhood recedes into myth. A piece of information such as that is a seed and from it a story grows. When it completed itself it went something like this:

The house was divided by nothing more solid than bedsheets, so that in the evenings, when the coal oil lamps were lit, Jesse could see the shadows of his wife on the other side of the divided house, though he knew not to speak to her directly. They both talked to themselves, out loud, sometimes. Jesse's wife, Rose, would usually say things such as, "I better get to churning some butter," or, "Time to shell some peas," to emphasize the difference between their respective spaces. Jesse cooked only outside, in a brick oven he made for himself, but mostly he ate such things as vienna sausages and other canned goods.

The house had been divided for over six years, and sometimes Jesse couldn't remember what the original quarrel was about. He would go over it in his mind, but it would shift and change as he imagined what he said rather than remembering it, in the tradition of people who argue a lot. He knew the arguing centered around her saying, "Mama used to say, 'Never marry a fiddling man, because he'll fiddle all the time and never work.'" He said she was attributing it to her mother but it was obviously her saying it, and if she had a problem with his playing the sun up in the mornings, or wanted to make fun of it, she should say so directly. The arguing went on for almost a full week, growing more heated and contentious.

And then the arguing was over. They agreed to split the house and not speak to each other or bother each other for any reason whatsoever. One thing that didn't change was his getting up at first light to take his fiddle and his bow up into the woods, where he had his "spot." It was between a hickory nut tree and a persimmon tree, and there was an outcropping of stone, where he always stood to fiddle the sun up every morning.

He couldn't remember how long he'd been doing it, but he knew that at some point it had become his religion, and he had stopped going with Rose to the Baptist church in town. "I been to church already," he said. The fact was, as he now recalled it, that was when she started being unkind with him.

He liked to walk barefoot to feel the dew on his feet in the meadow and the hard packed dirt of the path. It was one of his beliefs that the feet need to touch the ground, and that shoes are the main reason for people getting soft-headed. Another of his beliefs was that the sun is alive, and has a spirit made out of vibrations, and that he could touch those vibrations when he played his fiddle to it at first rising. He always played music that he created himself. It moved from soft and plaintive to wildly energetic at the culmination of sunrise.

One morning he was playing the sun up, locked in a frenzied embrace with the fiddle, when something strange broke through and into his awareness. He didn't let it interfere with his ritual, but as soon as he was done he went to find out where the sound of a baby's crying was coming from. The child could not have been more than three months old. She had been wrapped in a blanket and left behind the persimmon tree. "Everybody knows this is my spot," Jesse said, looking around suspiciously. "Somebody left this damn baby figuring for me to take care of it I reckon."

Then it occurred to him that it might be a gift from the Sun. He didn't say that out loud, but continued to fuss about people who play tricks on old men, who are too tired to take care of children and have other things they have to do. But behind his fussing hovered a thought that the little girl was a gift from the supernatural vibrations of the rising sun, though he was afraid to give it voice.

The thought of a supernatural gift, however, paled in comparison with his pleasure at the thought of Rose hearing him taking care of a baby in his side of the house. He imagined her standing still, not even breathing, wondering where the baby came from and how he came to be caring for it. That day he fed the child goat's milk and walked about with her talking incessantly about his beliefs, and how she was a gift from the sun.

On the other side of the cotton wall, Rose became increasingly agitated. She continually opened and closed her mouth, wanting to demand an explanation for events on Jesse's side of the house, but was afraid to break her vow to be struck dead if she ever spoke to him again. Now she regretted being so strong about it. She was a superstitious woman, and imagined that she might indeed be struck down if she broke the silence between her and Jesse.

Finally she compromised by writing a note and slipping it from her side to his:

"I don't know where you got it but you have a baby over there. You might kill it out of ignorance, so if you need to know something you can ask me." This gave her the satisfaction of asking Jesse to break the silence, so that if anybody was to be stuck dead for it, it would be him. Then, she reasoned, she could have the baby, which she dearly wanted.

She recalled seeing a play called "27 Wagons Full of Cotton," wherein the playwright said something to the effect that we think the baby needs the mama, but the mama needs the baby, so she don't hold just lifeless things in her arms. She had nothing alive except the cat to hold in her arms since she banished her man. And because the music came from his fiddle, and he held it like a baby, she envied him having it to hold and to love. She reckoned that's why she tried to make him feel guilty about being a fiddling man.

When Jesse saw Rose's shadow coming so close to the barrier he knew she was crazy to find out about the baby. Then she breached it; the note slipped under the sheets that were hemmed and weighted with fishing sinkers. This is the note he wrote back:

"She has a tail."

And it was true. The little girl had a stiff, furry little tail at the base of her sacrum, like a baby deer. When she was happy it wiggled back and forth, which Jesse found delightful. It didn't escape him, though, that the superstitious Baptists in the county might find it to be the mark of the Devil, and fear the child. As he had transferred all his supernatural relationship to the Sun, he viewed the tail as a gift from the divine source.

When Rose read his note she became more agitated. What did it mean? Did the child actually have a tail or was he misspelling "tale"? She sat in the darkness of her side of the house for two nights, watching the shadows and hearing Jesse talking and the baby crying. Sometimes he talked about the little tail, so that she began to believe in its reality. She decided she had to do something.

She thought about taking down the curtains enough so that she could see the baby, and maybe be allowed to take care of it with him. But when she thought about it, she couldn't help but picture the satisfaction it would give Jesse to see her be the one to give in. She would be shamed. And besides, the baby was deformed, and possibly came from evil seed.

On the morning of the third day she went into town and told the Sheriff the story, including that the child had a deformity that might be the mark of the Beast. He got in contact with the County Attorney, and they went out and took the child from Jesse without his putting up much resistance. He had secretly hoped the baby would cause the bed sheets to come down.

"I guess I don't know much about taking care of a baby," he said. "Will she be put in a family?"

"She'll get adopted by some nice people," the Sheriff said.

The County Attorney said, "That tail can be surgically removed so nobody ever knows she had it."

That night Jesse could feel a hatred growing in him for the shadow moving on the bed sheets. He didn't know what was behind them anymore, or care. In the morning he took his fiddle and bow and walked barefoot toward the back woods. He played the sun up like he always did, but after that day, there was always a part of him listening for the baby with the tail.

Posted: Fri - July 27, 2007 at 09:19 AM