Short Story: “A Midwestern Myth” by S.E. White

By S.E. White

“How’s it feel to live on an island?” Goldy asks.

Her boyfriend Eske shifts, captures another lightning bug; the cornstalks rustle. He moves to brush an arm to a thigh, lips to a cheek, but Goldy sways more easily than the brittle stalks. She smiles. Around them, the drought-like conditions have stripped the crops and trees of their summer greens—everything an arid shade of amber.

This silence of Eske’s still unnerves Goldy. His words are spoken softly as if the very wind might shatter at the sound. He’s a native of the Greenlandic village of Qaarsut which he has told her means “naked mountains.” He has come to the rural Ohio town for a degree in musical voice. He sings opera, worships Wagner, is the son of a harp seal tanner. To supplement his tuition, he poses for the art classes, allows them to define his skin, a nude of contours and angles.

He holds a lightning bug up to his mouth, its light a candle in his eyes.

“They blink to find mates,” Goldy says.

He nudges the insect onto his tongue; its yellowish abdomen shadows his mouth, a beacon. Goldy grimaces. The lightning bug’s glow vanishes over the rise of his tongue.

“You swallowed it,” she says.

Eske reaches out and palms another, gently takes Goldy’s hand, places it inside her cold, purple fingers. She tries to pull back, but he holds more firmly. Her fingers are an embarrassment to her, something to be slipped into pockets, concealed behind her back, withheld. She has poor

circulation. Sometimes, they’re blue almost grey, other times nearly black, most often a deep shade of purple.

“How’s it feel to be surrounded by water?” she asks, recoiling her hand.

She’s told him her most intimate secret, but he reveals nothing of himself to her. The first day she met him, down by the pond feeding ducks, she told him about how her father sleeps in the barn and wanders the fields with the cattle. Most people in town know about her father, and when Eske said nothing, showed nothing, Goldy fell in love with him.

She dreams of Eske, strolls through the university’s art building during her lunch hour just to admire sketches of his body. With one of her discolored fingers, she traces each stroke of the artists’ pencils, rounds the curves down, caresses the most interlacing lines. The man silhouetted beside her in this cornfield, under the branches of an ancient oak tree, in those sketches is reduced to lines, squiggles, boundaries.

He leans closer to her, but she folds her arms. Her father taught her as a young girl that she is a treasure not easily possessed, that her body and its deepest secrets are to be valued, precious as gold.

When it comes to intimacy, she believes she’s “touched,” a little crazy, disordered; an idea that when mentioned to Eske makes him smile.

“Then why do you date me?” Goldy asks. She poses the question as light-hearted, but it’s the most serious thing she’s ever asked him.

Eske pulls out his pocket knife, reindeer antler, and whittles the tupilak he’s carving for her and smirks, suggesting because you’re untouched.

“I want to be close to you,” she says, allowing the lightning bug he gave her to crawl the length of one of her fingers.

“I want to be close to you,” Eske whispers.

“Then open yourself up to me.”

Eske closes his eyes, and she watches him retreat into himself.

“What are your dreams? What has your life been like? You live on an island?”

A drift of black clouds swallow the moon.

“You are an island,” she says.

Eske smiles. “No man is an island.”

# # #

Damp with the morning dew, Neb Nestor swishes a mouthful of buckeye ale, then spits onto the thirsty, cracked land beneath his bare feet. This drought, he knows, is his fault. None but his.

The grain elevator in town is visible as a slate-colored silhouette in the mist, its four enormous silos the battlements; shops and fields of wheat, soy, and corn encircle it as a moat. It is a castle on the flat horizon. Other small towns have sprouted around other elevators in Northwest Ohio, but as Neb stares at the one nearest him, he knows most of the corn inside belongs to him. Each little kernel like a nugget of gold in his hand.

He rents farms to sharecroppers, has them work his land while he collects a portion of the profits. Stroking his beard, leaning against the side of his red painted barn watching the black and white cows graze on what little grass is left, Neb knows he leases those same people their dreams. He sighs at the less wealthy’s futile wish for possession. The possessed can’t possess, he thinks. He swallows another swish of buckeye ale and can’t think who possesses whom, the land or the people. We’re all possessed, he decides, by the only green that never browns. He drinks a toast to the cow sauntering past him.

The oak in the middle of his fields, with its twisted trunk and limbs like a hand with gnarled fingers reaches towards a pinch of clouds: alone, surrounded by the dust of drought. The skeletal palm reminds him of the boy months ago. Cold, bluish, lying in a silk cushioned casket, lost in an ocean of Alpine Forget-Me-Nots. The sprawl of cancer and its tendrils had taken root in the boy’s body—dead from chemicals running off the soil into the family’s well, on land Neb owned and sprayed to keep green, golden. This drought, Neb knows, is his own fault. None but his

People in town think he’s mad. He believes he is. Mad, angry, not insane. Unbathed, he sleeps outdoors, lives outdoors. How could he bathe in water filled with the poison of his own greed? Live in a house the poison paid for? Ever since he drove out to the Chambers’ farm and heard the mother crying, he felt swallowed up, like he was sliding into a dark pit.

Even though this dust blows into his eyes and his corn crops crinkle like burnt bills, he hears the steady drip of water, the whisper of a thousand voices calling him an ass.

Goldy’s Geo drives down the gravel driveway to the road. On her way to work for the day. Neb sips more ale. Not mad, drunk maybe. He wants to speak with her, sit at the kitchen table and share a meal, but whenever he comes close to the screen door or sees her with her boyfriend, his chest tightens and he feels like he’s wading through a pool. She’s embarrassed of him. He knows this. He loves her. She doesn’t know this. He leans against the red chipped paint of his barn and sprays ale from his mouth like a fountain. Not mad, mad, cornered, a little touched. This drought, he tells one of his cows, is my fault. None but mine.

Goldy did the casket spray for Daniel Chambers months ago. His face painted to look healthy. Someone’s masterpiece of peace. His hair was thin and sparse, his skin greyish. He wore a little blue suit that had a homemade stitch to it. Probably his mother had spent a week’s worth of nights poking herself with needles, biting thread off with her teeth, bent over an old sewing machine like Goldy’s mother used to do.

Goldy didn’t like doing casket sprays when the bodies were already there, lid open. Made the people seem too much like props, symbols of their own former selves, emblems of grief. It felt eerie. She always wore a sweater with pockets on days she did casket sprays because Silenus Funeral Home was kept so cold and the temperature made her fingers all the more purple.

She didn’t know her father blamed himself for the boy’s death, but she knew he’d donated a good share of the floral arrangements. Alpine Forget-Me-Nots. Petals of true blue that surrounded the oak casket like waters encircling an island. The boy looked as though any second his eyes would open and he would sit up, explain to her that being dead was a mistake. He would smile, laugh even, climb out of the casket and walk out the double doors to the street, on his way home. He was only eleven.

She placed a few planters on the casket, sprinkled a handful of petals onto the draped pall. In a couple hours, she would return in a trickle of mourners who would come to pay their respects. Daniel Chambers had been a cute little boy. Wore a John Deere hat, denim overalls. The summer before, when he’d been healthy, he caught first prize in the greased pig competition at the county fair. The pig outlived him.

Once, years before, she had gone with her father to the Chambers’ farm to see how the crops were faring and to collect their rent money. She sat on the back steps with Daniel. He picked up an orange kitten.

“You smell like flowers,” he told her with a grin.

“You smell like flowers,” he told her with a grin.

“Is that good or bad?”

The cat scratched and struggled to get free. “Good,” he nodded. “I like flowers.” He let the cat go and picked a dandelion, mumbled something about a mama and a baby and flicked the top off with his thumb, then laughed.

“Ever do this,” he asked, rubbing another dandelion on his chin, leaving a smear of yellow on his chin. “Means you’re in love.”

She liked the boy. He was open. Honest. Unguarded in his expressions of flowers and love. She smiled at the yellow stain on his chin, and when he handed one to her, she rubbed it on her own chin. He laughed and pointed and stomped his feet.

“You’re in love,” he said. “Your chin’s all yellow.”

No matter how hard she tried to wipe it away, the stain stayed. She didn’t want to be in love.

That day, staring into his casket, she remembered hearing his laugh. She pulled her sweater tight around herself and slipped her hands into her pockets. Everything was in place. She told the funeral director she needed to step outside for a second and walked around the front lawn. The

grass was dead from lack of water, but she found what she was searching for in the shadow of a tree. She bent over and picked a dandelion. Absently, she rubbed it at her chin before she went back inside and slipped it between his hands.

Eske reclines on a draped white cloth. His knee raised. Sketch pencils and bits of charcoal rise. The artists’ fingers stained grey. Their eyes focus intently on each curve, ripple of muscle, wave of hair, as if he reclines before them like a range of fleshly mountains they must conquer. Peaks and valleys shadowed by the harsh fluorescent lights of the art studio

For an hour, those easels and eyes isolate him in a world of silence where only faint brushes of lead against canvas whisper private visions. A middle-aged woman with a bleach blonde bouffant, near the back, smiles at him. There’s always one. A woman who finds his nudity an indication of his sensitivity, as if revealing himself renders him somehow touchable. But, posing on the platform, he is adrift. He hears the pant of dogs, the rush of the sled through snow, over expanses of ice. The room darkens to a pale red. Mystical auroras glow green on the night sky. He walks the tundra alone.

He caresses his wife’s naked hipbone. She Danish. He Inuit. The night endless. She takes his hand in both of hers. He cannot see her face through the darkness, only feels the warmth of her body near his. The baby born weeks before, born with her heart outside her chest, already buried

“I’m going back to Denmark,” Aka whispers.

Eske feels ippernaq bite his exposed body—mosquitoes as thick in Greenland as in Goldy’s cornfield on a humid night. A scratchy recording of Wagner’s Siegfried underscores Aka’s voice.

“I’m going back home,” she says.

He places his hand on top of hers. “I’m not going with you.”

“I’m not asking,” she replies. “I’ll ask my mother to send me the airfare and I’ll leave next week.”

Eske’s job beside his father tanning seal skins didn’t pay for extravagances. He worked long hours.

He sighs, hums to the music vibrating in his ears.

“I would’ve left you, you know, even if the baby had lived,” she says. “Eventually.”

He wishes for light, to snap on the lamp, or even the comforting glow of a flashlight. The sound of her voice, the words that crawl up from her throat are too dark for him. But he won’t turn on a light, doesn’t want to see her face or reveal his own. He won’t give her the satisfaction of asking why. The child was part of him as well, the bridge between them.

“You never touched me,” she whispers and rolls out of bed

This he didn’t understand. Still doesn’t, reclining on a platform, lending his likeness to the snow white pages would-be artists mark and divide from itself. The room feels cold and suddenly alive with sound. The middle-aged woman with the bouffant smiles wider.

# # #

In the shadows of Marblehead Lighthouse, Lake Erie’s choppy waves slap against the rocks Goldy and Eske sit on. The drive to Port Clinton was a long hot one, but worth it to Goldy, if only for the feel of cool water between her toes. She weaves her fingers together, holds them off to her left, away from Eske.

“How comforting it must be to see the lighthouse blinking through a fog,” she says, staring at its red chipped paint.

She’s come to expect Eske’s silence. He continues to carve faces out of the reindeer antler.

“A beacon guiding you to the shore,” she muses, standing up and slipping her hands into the pockets of her shorts.

Eske sets aside his knife and stands beside her.

“You’d be lost without its light,” she whispers to herself, then turns to him. “I want to touch shore.”

He leans closer to her, opens his arms as if to offer himself to her. She laughs lightly and hops down from the rock.

“Come to my performance tonight,” he says. “Das Rheingold, part of Wagner’s tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

“Of course,” she answers, wrapping her arms around herself.

Wind whispers across her face, makes her think of her father sitting down by the barn. His hair shaggy and unkempt. A pair of faded overalls hanging loosely over his thinning frame. His fingernails grey from dirt. The man she knew as a girl wore new clothes almost every week. His hair combed neatly, sometimes he had hired hands do the work while he watched in a suit and tie. He bathed religiously, spent most days at his desk, a sweaty glass of water on a crocheted doily, tending his books, balancing his money, budgeting other people’s lives.

Her mother left him for one of the hired hands. The man was younger and dirt poor, picked wild flowers for her which Goldy remembered seeing on the kitchen window sill. The night her mother walked out the screen door, she told Neb that she didn’t want to be his possession, a trophy.

“You’re possessed with all of your money,” she said. “And you’ve already poisoned our daughter, calling her Goldy, as if gold flows through her veins.”

Neb took a measured sip of water but said nothing.

“I’m taking her with me, to save her.”

Neb smacked a mosquito on his hand, flicked it away. “She belongs to me,” he said quietly.

“She belongs to both of us.”

He shook his head

“Ask her who she’d rather live with,” her mother said.

With a smirk, Neb sipped more water than turned to Goldy and asked her. The question for a five- year-old seemed dutifully easy at the time. She didn’t want to leave home, go off with her mother and a strange man. Her father bought her presents, put her on a pedestal. It was a choice she didn’t want, but as a girl she saw no choice at all. She felt she owed it to her father to stay.

She hears the wind, almost a breathless word carried into her memory. Eske steps down from the rock and touches her arm.

“I want to be with you,” he says.

She allows him a kiss. She thinks if she had gone with her mother she might be able to give Eske what he wants: her self, her body. Her mother loved across boundaries, for good or for bad. Goldy picks a dandelion and rubs it on Eske’s chin, then kisses the stain. Grey clouds darken the waters.

Lightning explodes onto the oak tree in a burst of sparks. Neb Nestor, kneeling in the hayloft, watches the pulsating electric streak set the limbs ablaze. He stumbles over to the ladder, everything spinning from the ale he’s spent the day drinking. Rain washes across the fields in sheets, extinguishing the flames before they start, a cloud of smoke hovers around the tree.

He hears faint laughter. A young woman’s shout. The shimmering paleness of skin slides through the cornstalks. He drops from the ladder into more hay. The lightning, he believes, was the finger of God. Millions of raindrops raise their voices in chorus. Not mad, he decides, depressed.

As a boy he stood on his grandfather’s farm, smelled the sweet fragrance of hay and wheat and manure. Fertility. He fell in love with the land, wanted to own it, be one with it, but he couldn’t, he can’t. He tried to own it and lost the boy. Under every pile of bills, every pound of corn, his wish to conquer the land buried him.

He staggers to the barn doors and pushes them open, the wind whips him in the face, rainwater drips from his beard. Swaying stalks speak, pronounce retribution, howl and lift their arms. He believes he hears a little boy’s cries. Branches snap from the oak. The crying is louder as he trips forward. But where is the little boy? Is he lost? No. As he listens, he hears the cries become a young man’s aria. He pushes stalks aside as if wading through murky waters.

A good crop of corn is knee high by the fourth of July. His were. But now as they crackle shoulder high, their gold empty of value, he knows what had begun good is dead.

He screams his daughter’s name

“Doreen!”

He drops to his knees, the water washing over him, lightning granting flashes of clarity. He has never felt more alone. He wades on, mud splashes his bare feet.

“Doreen!”

He’ll reach the oak tree. His fingers are dark with soil as though stained with blood. He swims the corn, hopes to redeem himself. When he reaches the ancient oak and touches the finger of God, his guilt will be enough.

“Doreen!!”

The glow of a lantern guides him forward. The young man’s aria brings him to tears. Dampened stalks cling to his body, push him down so that he struggles to keep his head above the surface. They raise their hands like a fervent choir, and he hears them as they celebrate, worshiping the wind that gives them sway as he stumbles, falls buried in the mud only to rise again.

Eske sings beneath the ancient oak. A hole exploded into the mud when the lightning struck. The flash seared open layers of bark, revealing, peeling back. He stares at the gap like it is a porthole, sings of dragons and Norse gods and evil Nibelungs. At the concert, before the storm, he’d been on stage, sweat dripping down his face, the silence unbearably loud. His lips parted, but he could summon no sound, like something was stuck in his throat and feared the light. Through the shadows of the audience, he felt Goldy watching him, felt the warmth of her brown eyes on his face, and he stood mute.

Now, in the middle of a cornfield, in the middle of a game of hide and seek, he stops and sings above the thunder and rustling cornstalks. In the car, after the concert, he’d pulled over, stroked Goldy’s cheek.

“I was married,” he said. “My daughter was born with her heart outside her chest, and she died. My wife didn’t love me.”

Goldy kissed him

“And it was cold,” he answered.

“What?”

He sighed. “Living on an island.”

He handed her the tupilak he’d carved for her out of a reindeer antler. Two creatures, one standing on the other, their mouths open, eyes wide, expressions fearful yet beautiful.

Now he raises his voice higher, higher. The lantern in his hand, he holds above his head. With each flash of lightning, he catches sight of the glow of naked skin. She’ll find him. If he sings louder, she will come to him.

Breathless, she runs, running towards his voice, towards the flickering lantern.

Arms reach around and grab her by the shoulders. In a pale flash of lightning, she stares into the green eyes of an old man with a straggly beard and faded overalls.

“Doreen,” he says.

She realizes her nakedness, but he seems oblivious.

“I killed that boy,” he sobs.

“What boy?”

“Daniel Chambers. The chemicals I had sprayed on those crops. Oh, God, they killed that boy.”

She hears Eske’s singing, feels the rain dripping down her face, the drops tracing the curves of her body. Her father looks at her, then turns away, wipes his face.

“I’m so very tired, Doreen,” he mumbles.

Goldy shields herself behind a couple stalks.

He shakes his head. “You’re your own woman,” he concedes, pauses a moment, then slowly walks in the direction of the house. Not the barn.

Hearing him say the words touched her deeply. Hearing him call her by her real name left her speechless. The cornstalks wave less and less, their rustling hushing. Thunder rumbles farther, lightning a distance flash. Goldy gathers herself, focuses on the lantern, on the aria as clear now as spring water, and she runs forward, pushing through the corn.

Beneath the lightning scarred oak, Eske reaches out and weaves Goldy’s discolored fingers into his, both exposed to any bolt that may spontaneously burst out of the sky. Neither says anything to the other as they cling to each other, sway into each other like new creatures submerged in an ocean, waiting for the right moment to return to land.

About the Author

S.E. White teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Purdue University North Central. She has published stories in The Smoking Poet, Brink, Toasted Cheese,  and 100 Word Story.  She also authors A Novel Blog.

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