Crimes of Passion
From SHARDS (winner of an O. Henry Prize)
Struck by sun, anything's beautiful. A dead cat, calico when I got up close, was fool's gold from across the street. There were maggots more than a few. I was six. I got sick. Even now, I love the sun more than what it strikes.
Light's the only thing to love. First, it lasts. And it's the kiss that stings the eyes closed. To open your eyes means tears. The trick's to keep them open while they're shut, Father says. That's the murderer's code.
The first time I saw a corpse it was night. My eyes were open wide, always are in the dark. My pulse goes up, I swear, when the sun goes down. I see everything clear, like a cat.
No moon, nor star. Everything dark. The county road rainblack, snakeskin slick. When I saw the cars I swerved, skidded in the ditch. Stepfather's DeSoto was all right--muffler damage, nothing more--but I was sick. I knew someone was dead. I was sixteen and still I felt sick.
Nausea never passes, only changes form. I waited till it turned to numbness, then got out and climbed up the ditch through shin-high weeds so wet they soaked my Levi's. The Pontiac's left turn signal was still blinking. Its reflection in the asphalt: red, black; red, black; red, black. For some reason, that light made me sadder than I'd ever been. I couldn't take my eyes off it.
Sometimes the night's a palpable weight. It shoved me to my knees: I still carry a shard of windshield glass just under my right kneecap. It floats, like an injured athlete's bonechip. Me, I'm an athlete of death.
But kneeling's not praying. I wasn't praying, though the highway patrolman thought so. A hand shook my shoulder as if waking me. I looked up: the maroon and tan uniform, the gold braid around the brim of the hat. "I'll need your help, son," he said. "There'll be plenty of time to pray later." I hadn't even heard him drive up.
The patrolman opened the Pontiac's door with a yank, but we had to crowbar the Ford's. Both drivers, one no older than I, one Stepfather's age, were dead. No doubt about it. The patrolman didn't even bother to check their pulses. Just pushed his hat up his pale forehead. Whispered "Jesus" like a sigh.
I nodded, but I was barely listening. All I could think about was the statue of St. Christopher on the Ford's dash. The car was totalled, the driver's face crushed, but the statue was unharmed. Not a chip in the paint. Unperturbed, St. Christopher was still toting the Christ child across the blue waters of the suction cup.
The second the patrolman looked awy, I jerked the statue off the dash and stuffed it in my jacket pocket. I still have it, too, at least what's left of it. The morning after the accident, I took it to the quarry where the Tyler Rifle Club shot clay pigeons on Sunday afternoons and I blew it into slivers of plastic from a hundred feet with my .30-06. I'm a crack shot, have been since I was twelve. The Army didn't know what they were losing when they turned me down.
I would have been a good soldier. Death doesn't bother me, unless it's accidental. That car accident shook me up a whole summer. That was seven years ago, but sometimes I still dream about it and wake so scared or angry or something in between that I've got to go out and do something. Not drink. Bourbon blurs the eye and makes me dream awake. What I need, those times, is to talk, and at three a.m., no one'll listen but prostitutes. I pay my money, but all I do is talk.
But if a death is planned, it doesn't bother me. At least somebody's in control. Accidents belong to God, Father says; murders, to us.
From SISTER ANASTASIA'S BIRTHDAY
She had been sleeping, it seemed, then she heard someone cough. Who is coughing? she thought. Then she realized: it was herself.
Silly old woman. Silly halfdead old woman.
Then she noticed that she was sitting up. Why? She looked around the hospital room. The vaporizer breathing the Vicks odor of death. The late afternoon light on the linoleum like the outline of someone killed in a highway accident.
Anastasia shivered. Why did she have to think such thoughts? This was no time to think like that. This was a time for joy.
She lay back into herself, hugged the chill inside her. It won't be long now.
Now what is that? Whispering in the hallway? She raised her head from the pillow and strained to hear what they were saying. She couldn't make out the words over the hiss of the vaporizer, so she lay back.
Whisperers. No decency at all. Listen to them: they sound like cicadas buzzing in the trees.
She'd heard that hum every August at the home place. Once, she and Tom collected the brittle, umber-colored husks left in the elms after the humming stopped. She stood under each tree holding one of their father's empty cigarboxes while Tom shinnied up and found the desiccated husks for her. At first he crushed a lot of them, they were so fragile; later, he learned how to cradle them in his palm.
She had that cigarbox full of them somewhere. Where?
And who is this?
The nurse's face hung before her like a question waiting to be answered. "Sister Anastasia? Are you still awake?"
Why did nurses wear white, nuns black?
"You have a visitor, Sister."
Hovering behind her in the half-light, Sister Beatrice. The children are right. We do look like blackbirds. She watched Sister Beatrice pull a white handkerchief out of her black sleeve and blow her nose. The old nun laughed, then coughed. She hugged her ribs until she stopped coughing.
Was this how Tom had felt? Dry and ready to crumble?
It was that big-nosed nurse again. What do you want now?
"Sister Beatrice is here to see you. I can only let her stay a few minutes. If you need me, be sure to buzz."
He would drop down from the tree with his hands full of husks.
"I'm dying," she said, but Tom was gone.
"What?" asked a voice. "Did you say something, Sister?"
Here was Sister Beatrice's face.
"What is it, Sister?"
A blackbird with wire-rimmed glasses. I must tell the children.
The children. Oh, how they would cry at her funeral! She imagined the boys, bravely blinking; the girls, their faces in their hands: all of the children crying as hard as when the touring company of the Black Hills Passion Play performed the crucifixion last spring.
What was she thinking of? How could she think such a thing?
"I am an old sinner," she whispered. "Forgive me."
"Are you talking to me?" Beatrice asked.
Anastasia looked at the young nun and shook her head. To Jesus, she thought. To my Father. My Brother. My Husband.