Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Damask Rose by Edward Lee

Damask Rose
Bibby stirred and rose. Lilith jumped up. Bibby wiped his pants, and sat down. Lilith--worried that she might have betrayed herself-- went to the sink, rinsed an iron kettle and filled it with water. She set the kettle, water sloshing inside, on the stove and turned on the gas, the gas flaring into little flames. She waited by the stove.
     “Now, Lilith, what’s got you jumpy tonight?”
     “Me? Jumpy? I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
     “Well, you seem nervous, jumping up like a cat at the slightest provocation.”
     “I ain’t jumpy like no cat, I’m steady Lilly, like always.”
     Bibby rustled his newspaper and grunted. Bibby was reading a movie review for Gone with the Wind. “Lush, lavish, Southern epic.” He wanted to see the moving picture, but he had also wanted to watch Petrified Forrest and Scarlet Pimpernel before that; those movies played in the theater in town for months, and he hadn’t watched either of them. He was never going to see them. He was never going to see Gone with the Wind, either. He was never going to do anything with his leisure time, but sit by the hearth, read the paper, smoke his pipe, and keep an eye on Lilith.
     Lilith turned off the stove, and got her mug from out the cupboard. She sprinkled ground coffee into the mug and poured the hot liquid from the kettle, steam rising like a man out of a hot bath. She involuntarily shuddered. She was going to meet him in the barn at midnight, when Bibby was fast asleep. She would make love with Russell in the hay, without a sound, the horses nervously trotting in their stalls would be the only noise they would hear in the dark. 
     Bibby yawned, and thought it was about time for bed. Bibby said he was turning in, and went to the bedroom, undressed, until he was wearing nothing but his henley shirt and long johns. He left the door open, and lay himself down on the bed. He was snoring within minutes. 
     Lilith with a practiced hand changed from the smock apron and overalls she was wearing to a summer dress and sandals. She pulled her ash blonde hair back and set it in a bun. With her hair pulled back, it made her eyes look wider, her nose less broad. She sprayed a little perfume that smelled like damask rose on her neck and wrists. She rubbed her wrists together and patted herself around her neck. She left the house, her heart pounding, and met Russell in the barn.
     Bibby was dreaming that he was a cowboy and Lilith an Indian, and he was chasing Lilith who was wearing moccasins and brown suede garments, a feather tucked into her headband. She was whooping and hollering, and Bibby was trying to lasso her in close. She was always so distant. After trying and trying, he, finally, got the lasso around her and pulled her off her horse. She fell to the ground, her head hitting a jagged rock. Bibby got down from his horse and rushed to Lilith. She was bleeding profusely and her eyes were rolled back, showing the white of her eyes and thin red veins here and there. Bibby poured a canteen of water on her head, and found dressing and tape in his knapsack. He wrapped the dressing around her head and took the brown tape and unrolled it slowly around, cutting the end with a bowie knife. He pressed the tape against her forehead, and Lilith's eyes stopped fluttering, her pupils and irises coming into view, a dark red enclosed in black, “I don’t love you,” she said. “I’m leaving you tomorrow, and I’m going where the cold wind stirs.” Lilith’s eyes rolled back, and she screamed.
     Bibby woke up to the dogs barking, Lilith’s scream fading in his ears. Bibby got up quickly, and went to the living room, taking his rifle from above the mantel. He checked to see if the rifle was loaded. It was. He took a handful of cartridges from the ammunition box, the box spilling over in his haste, and he ran out the house, the barrel of his rifle pointed out in front of him.
     The door to the barn was open. He went inside. He found the light switch. In a heartbeat, he could see Lilith bleeding from a gash on her neck, her eyes vacant in their cold sockets. Bibby ran out, frantically looking around. He shot his rifle in the air. He re-loaded the rifle and shot it again. He was yelling, firing at shadows and pitch darkness.
     The sheriff and two deputies arrived at Bibby's house, the sky still dark. A deputy stayed with Bibby, as the sheriff and the other deputy looked at the murder scene. The sheriff, Larry, looked at the body, covered by a bed sheet, the clothes strewn a few feet away. The sheriff picked up the dress and smelled it. It was fresh from washing. The victim was having an affair with the murderer, that was plain. What had set the murderer off then? The sheriff picked up handfuls of hay around the body and put the hay in his back pockets. Larry called James and said, “Let’s go in to see Bibby.”
     Larry and James entered the house. Sitting down, Bibby was like a snake coiled from anger, cold, and pent up energy that could only find release in trembling and then being still. 
     The sheriff sat on his haunches and looked at Bibby's eyes; they looked calm enough. He asked Bibby if anyone had recently visited his wife. “No.” Anyone she talked about. “No.” Did he have any idea who could’ve done this? There was a pause before, Bibby said, “Russell. It had to be Russell.”
     “Who is Russell?”
     “He's a lazy migrant worker, lives a quarter of a mile from here in a shack that Lilith persuaded me into letting him live in.”
     “Where is this shack?”                                                
     “I’ve already checked it, Larry,” Bibby said. “The place was ransacked and abandoned by the time I got there.”
     “All right. Can we get to the shack by car?”
     “Yes, it’s a quarter mile down the road. There’s a beaten path that leads to it.”
     “I want you to show it to us.”
     “But I told you he’s not there.”
     “I know, but it’s a better starting point for a manhunt. We’ll start our search from there. It’ll cut his head start by a third, and the deputies are good runners. They were both athletes in college, and I’ll do my best to keep up. You stay at the shack, when we get there, and let us do our job.”
     “All right, Larry, as long as you get him.”
     “Don’t worry about that,” the sheriff said. 
     Outside, the sheriff told John to hurry into town and get the dogs. John put on his hat and got in the automobile and sped off, turning right at a T intersection. At the turn, the road followed the forest on one side, and followed the electrical lines hung on the tree size crucifixes on the other. Standing next to the sheriff, James yawned and stamped his feet, trying to fight off listlessness and the cold. The sheriff wished he could’ve started the day by stopping by the diner, asking Megan for hot black coffee, and eggs with sausages. Instead, he waited, the sky black, like the coffee he yearned for, until he could see the car coming.
     John opened the car door and two German Shepherds jumped out and circled James and the sheriff. The sheriff took the hay, he got from the barn, out of his back pockets, and he put it out in front of the dogs, who congregated around the sheriff’s stuffed hands. They caught the scent and looked at the forest. John leashed the dogs, and led them back into the car.
     “James, go get Bibby,” the sheriff said. James ran off to the house.
     “John, can you still jog a good two miles?”
     “Sure, sheriff.”
     “Last time something like this happened, we kept it up at a sprint for half an hour, then trotted for a while, then picked it up back at a sprint.”
     “You worried we won’t catch him, sheriff?”
     “We’ll catch him. But it’d be a whole lot easier if Bibby had just come to us first instead of going to that shack on his own.”
     “I don’t blame him, sheriff.”
     The sheriff looked surprised. “Neither do I.”
     James came out with Bibby, and they all got in the car, one dog sitting on James’s lap, the other on the sheriff’s. John started the car and drove as fast as the car could go.
     That bitch! Russell screamed inside his head. Why did she have to plead so loudly? Why didn’t she shut up when he told her to? Didn’t she know her husband was at the very most twenty feet away from them, capable of waking up at anytime, with that rifle above his mantel that he liked showing him, which he told him he always kept loaded, just in case some fool tried to rob him and in Russell’s case cuckold him? But she wouldn’t stop the steady stream of begging, soliciting words that came out of her mouth at too high a pitch. He put his hands around her neck, and told her to shut up. Shut your whiny, loudmouthed trap. She put her hands on his sleeves and pulled them down. She was hysterical. “Take me away. I have to leave. You owe it to me. I don’t care if he kills us,” and other such nonsense. Until, he had no choice. He had to shut her up. So, he cut her throat, but not before that monstrous scream that woke up the dogs and sent him out the barn, shots being fired, and into the night to his shack, where he got his things, a change of clothes, an extra pair of new boots, which he bought a week ago, cans of beans, all his money that amounted to two dollars and fifty-two cents, and the axe he took from out back for protection.
     Inside the woods, not far away, he could hear dogs, savage barking dogs with incisors, fangs salivating with ferocity and meanness; he could hear men calling out, “Hey, you out there. Who’s out there? Is it you, Russell? Turn yourself in. We mean you no harm. Turn yourself in.” He couldn’t recognize their voices. He didn’t hear Bibby’s voice in those calls, in those teases and trickery. He dropped his clothes, boots, his cans of beans, all wrapped in a blanket, but he held onto his axe. He held onto its handle for dear life, his feet moving unsteady, wide left to wide right, his lungs dragging in air and exuding it out in clouds of steam. He looked back and saw his pursuers. He stumbled, his axe dropped, and his momentum carried him forward till he fell. Within seconds, the dogs were on him, rending his clothes. The sheriff called them off, and the deputy handcuffed him. All for the sake of a foolish woman. Russell groaned.
     At the jailhouse, even after the sheriff and his deputies had grilled him, Russell wouldn’t admit to anything, which was sure to give him a harsher sentence, the sheriff thought. And sure enough, three months later, at the trial, he was sentenced to death by hanging. Russell dropped his head at the sentencing. His mother burst into an all-out bawl. A few weeks after the trial, Bibby came into town for the execution. Bibby was a shell of himself by then, hollow and dead, like the man he saw before him gagging, jerking his knee before death and incontinence. The sheriff, standing just apart from Bibby, put a consoling hand on his shoulder. Pulling his shoulder away, Bibby turned and walked, the crowd making way for him, looking till he was in the distance, a blur engulfed in a steady rise and then descent in the main road to oblivion.


Bio Edward Lee’s work has appeared in Transcendent Visions and Scarlet Leaf Review. His favorite writers are Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, and Ray Bradbury, but not his tame stuff that they make you read in high school. Edward lives in Queens, New York.



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