Night-sounds on the Louisiana bayou blend into one soporific, intoxicating buzz, the air a muggy blanket draped over the ranch house in the middle of the dirt clearing.
The old woman sits in the older rocker on the ancient porch. Creaking, fanning, humming a tune the words to which she forgets, if it ever had words. Mosquitoes avoid her. Lightning bugs dance for her; occasionally she will snare one from the air, smash it on her arm and draw designs on her skin with the phosphorescent liquid, like she did when she was a little girl ... a long time ago.
From inside the house, a crash, a vase probably, then the inevitable pitiful weeping, increasing as he nears the door.
Poor Jeffery. Never very coordinated, neither very bright. And now...
The woman sighs, phlegmy, rattling. At least he's here.
From the door: "Momma?" Muffled.
"Right here, darlin'. Come keep your momma comp'ny."
"I--I cain't stand up, Momma."
Exasperation, quickly checked. Hold the breath; let it seep out, slow like. He can't help it. "Well, drag yourself out here. You hafta at least give her a try. After what I done fer you, it's the least you can do."
A pause. Then: "Yes, Momma." He begins to scrabble at the threshold, bumping at the screen door, cursing his lack of control.
Momma smiles. That's my boy. She winks conspiratorially at the blue-ringed platinum moon…Harvest moon. Her eyes drape, face tilting to absorb the coolness she feels flowing from the pregnant sphere. Shelley's words fill her mind and whisper from her lips: "That orbed maiden with white fire laden, whom mortals call the moon…"
Bittersweet this moon, and the memory it evokes…
Harvest moon of twenty years past, middle age no longer a threat, but a reality. Sipping chamomile under a moonlit sky, fanning the heat into her face, watching the shambling figure at the edge of the clearing, lurching toward her, calling her name in a drunken slur. And then he was at the porch, leering, falling on her. Sour breath washed over her and she felt disgust…and then more as he began to pick clumsily at the buttons of her dress. No, she had said, pushing at his bulk, but he slapped her, became violent and she was on her back on the porch, squirming beneath his sweat, and then he was inside of her, stealing the only virtue she'd ever had, and suddenly, in self-loathing, she was kissing her brother's neck, saying, Yes, not knowing what she was affirming.
Later there was blood.
The next day vomiting.
The next year…Jeffery.
Many Harvest moons betwixt then and now. And last week—or was it two weeks—the Accident.
It had seemed like the end. Loneliness would surely consume her. How would she live without her only friend and constant companion? All it took was one hunter with bad aim—or bad eyesight, or both—to snatch Jeffery away from her. Yes, it had seemed like the end…but that was then.
Jeffery is beside her on the porch, pulled and grunted into a hunched-over sitting position.
"My muscles don't work so good no more, Momma."
She runs leathery fingers through his patchy hair. "I know, darlin'. And you're startin' to smell somethin' fierce." A soft smile as she speaks, remembering how Scripture had saved her from a lonely death: Faith as a grain of mustard seed. John, was it? Or Mark? One of the Gospels.
Yes, enough faith can heal the sick and hurtin’...
Tears begin to spill down her cheeks. Hell, enough faith can raise the dead, she thinks as she brushes maggots from Jeffery's hair.
He turns his ruined face toward her, eyes shriveled and fallen away, his remaining teeth coated green. His voice when he speaks is brittle and dusty, forced from shrinking lungs through a deteriorating larynx. "Please let me go, Momma."
The rocker stops creaking, crickets and cicadas freeze, the clearing holds its breath. "Whatever do you mean, child?" Her tone dry, sweet.
His head droops and she pretends not to hear the creaking as rigor mortis fights for control. He mumbles incoherently.
"Speak up, child!" Harsh.
"I—I need to sleep, Momma. I kin feel the bugs, their chewin' and nestin'. I'm most filled up with 'em. And they hurt. And—and it hurts 'cause I'm...I'm comin' apart, Momma."
Her hand flutters at her breast—half genuflection, half old-age tremor—and she chews her lips to keep the tears at bay. "You're right, baby. Your momma's been selfish not to see your pain. But you gotta understand something too: I can't let you leave me. The essence of you, anyway. You know, the part that's really you...I guess that's what we call the soul." She pauses to let the lump in her throat sink down. "But if your body wastes away...well, then I've lost anyhow."
She slowly begins to rock, then faster. The crickets sense the change and begin to move, filling the clearing with music as it releases a sigh and the cicadas pick up the tempo. A cacophony of melodies and sounds swirl about the porch, then all abruptly stop.
"I should've thought of this sooner," Momma says, and stands.
"Thoughta what, Momma?"
"Just never you mind. Your momma knows what's best."
She is in the foyer, picking up the phone, Jeffery on the floor, half in and half out of the doorway, wedged by the screen door.
"Who ya callin', Momma?"
She smiles serenely. "Lloyd Paxton."
Realization dawns with an audible crack on Jeffery's decaying face. "No—NO! Momma, please don't!"
"Hush now," she whispers with a frown, and then brightens to the husky Hello in her ear. "Lloyd. How good to hear your sweet voice...yes, it has been a long time...yes. But listen, the reason I called is I think I might have a job for you, that is if you're still practicing taxidermy."
A sound like pebbles on hardwood as more of Jeffery's teeth fall from his black gums.
And Momma says, "You'd best hurry right over, Lloyd."