© 2018 by Heron Greenesmith

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The Juniper Bush

December 21, 2016

The Juniper Bush originally appeared on Entropy Mag on December 31, 2016.

 

Last summer my son disappeared. The police said some folks saw him walking along the river bank after school. The river was still rough the day they found his backpack and his shoes, three days after he didn’t come home from summer school. It had rained the day he disappeared. They never found his body.

 

Standing there with the police, holding my daughter, I watched white peaks froth and foam in the dark rushing water below us. We stood on the concrete embankment next to the river, close to the Lowe Street Bridge. Dilly was five. Is six now. Even then, she was almost too big to hold.

 

I shouldn’t have brought her that day. She won’t go near the river anymore. Says it whispers. But the police called when I was picking her up from daycare and my husband was still out of town. He had flown to Texas for work the Friday Sam went missing. Couldn’t cancel the trip, he said. He was the only one who knew the cargo manifestos inside and out, he said. It was also Fourth of July weekend and there weren’t any flights home until Tuesday. He had to rent a car and it had broken down near Nashville, he said.

Dilly and I stood there. We stood there on the concrete getting soaked by rain and river spray and I looked at the rich foam and I felt my heart dissolving in the water. I felt half my heart dissolving and I held the other half in my arms and I held it so tight Dilly cried out in pain.

 

The Lowe Street Bridge crossed the river south of town. It wasn’t where the police believed Sam fell, though – they thought he went in the water not far from the post office. A steep shelf of rocks sloped behind the little office park there, tipping quickly into the river. Too quickly. Three years earlier another student, older than my Sam, had fallen, had slipped, had died. The town talked about a railing, some yellow paint, but nothing got done. There’s a railing there now. A sign saying “Rocks May Be Slippery When Wet.”

 

At Lowe Street, Dilly and I stood next to a woman in a blue uniform holding a clear plastic bag with Sam’s backpack in it. She wanted me to confirm it was his. It was his. It looked disgusting, soaked and dark. Everything inside had matted together, indistinguishable. The woman handed me things, just wet papers and small snack bags full of crumbs and Sam’s emergency cell phone and the pieces of pencil from the bottom of the bag and then she handed me a little silvery coin and I swallowed a sound so big it would have startled the woman. I had given Sam that coin on his first day of first grade. It was silly – a crushed quarter from Mount Washington. He loved it. I had no idea he had kept it. My hands were full of life: Dilly, wet paper, the coin.

 

His initials were there on the front of the bag, dirty white against the dark red fabric. Sam hated his bag. Dorky. I had told him he’d get a new one for September. My husband told Sam to suck it up. Or maybe he told Sam he was a fucking dork, so the bag matched. Or maybe he had said nothing.

 

Sam’s backpack had caught against the black, wide-ridged plastic of a culvert along with a tangled mass of branches, leaves, plastic bags, empty bottles, and other garbage. The same man who had seen Sam walking beside the river on Friday had spotted the red fabric amid the green and brown. The man, actually one of my husband’s friends, walks along the river every day from home to work and back. Twice he blessed us with leads where before there were none. Twice our savior. Twice the bearer of the worst news.

My husband finally made it home Wednesday, five days after Sam disappeared. I was empty. Empty of worry. Empty of love for Dilly. Empty of tears. Empty of resentment. I was an empty bottle, caught in a tangle of garbage and broken branches, pinned against a dirty black culvert.

 

David, my husband, wasn’t Sam or Dilly’s father. Their father had crewed a cargo ship that traveled up and down the east coast. He had been taken by water, too, right after Dilly was born. A month after she arrived in the world, he departed, falling off a ship in the Chesapeake Bay. They never found his body either. I watched the video taken from the ship’s port cameras. A small figure walks along the side of the ship, around the cabin near the stern. Dark and faceless in a rain slicker, tiny and angled away from the cameras, the figure huddles into the wind and its feet slip once, twice. Over the railing in an instant, faster than a blink, and lost to the vast dark bay. I didn’t cry in the crowded shipping office, watching the video. Three men I hardly knew held their concern so plainly on their faces that I almost choked. David, Sam’s father’s crewmate, was in that room, was one of those men, his face crumpled with pity.

 

Dilly was in my arms that day as well, asleep in her baby sling. She didn’t cry either. Sam was at daycare. He cried. Cried for days. Snot dripped from his nose; his nails made tiny white divots in his palms.

 

Now that nose and those nails and those palms were gone.

 

**

Demon sat on my chest, claws dark and sharp, ears jagged and pinked inside. Demon was heavy, dense, black. His black was a shadow, a deepness. The pale pink interior of his ears and the shiny wetness of his eyes highlighted the black surrounding them.

Demon was small, sized and shaped like a pug dog. No teeth behind his tight black lips. No nose on his wrinkled black muzzle. Huge eyes, ears, claws.

 

I couldn’t move. Demon pressed on my chest, pressed me to the bed, and pinched the skin on my shoulders through my nightshirt. I could only look at his shiny eyes, his wet eyes, his black dripping eyes.

 

My arms were suddenly wrenched up, away from my body, reaching toward the ceiling. I hadn’t moved them. My fingers spread wide, too wide, stretched at the webbing.

Demon pushed his head between my straining forearms. I felt his fur, short and sharp. The skin on his face stretched, pulling away from his eyes. His thin black lips peeled back, dripping, drooling over black gums. Demon pushed. And pushed. His skin got tighter and tighter. Skin split. Fur shredded. Black muscle bared. Dark bone shone. A scream built behind my teeth, caught on my tongue. Blood and spit and tears dripped on my shirt.

I couldn’t move.

 

**

 

The night David returned from Texas, he brought me a juniper bush. Juniper is my favorite plant. The fragrant, perennial green-ness and the hard, hardy berries. This little plant was ancient – tiny and brittle – its roots wrapped in damp newspaper. It was tucked into the center cup holder of the second rental car.

 

The next morning, I woke to find David in the back yard, planting the tiny shrub against the rear fence. I robotically made a cup of tea, going through the motions as if my son hadn’t just disappeared, hadn’t just died, and watched David working in the dirt. He was on his knees, trowel and fertilizer out. He had excavated an enormous patch of dirt and was adding fresh loam from a bag sliced through the front like a gutted animal, spilling its dark offal onto the browning grass.

 

Dilly woke up early that morning, too. I heard her feet padding along the back hall into the kitchen. She slipped her hand into mine and leaned against my hip. I looked down at the top of her nut-brown head to catch the moment she saw David. Her body stiffened, her hand tightened painfully around mine, and she began to scream. Screaming screaming screaming. I looked out into the yard where David turned his face toward the house. Even across the forty feet of grass I recognized his expression, the same I saw that day in the shipping office five years ago. Pity. David hurried back, brushing dirt from his hands.

Dilly was still screaming. I scooped her up and buried my face in her warm sweet neck.

We sat down to breakfast, but Dilly wouldn’t stop crying. She choked on her cereal until I gave up and drove her to day care with nothing in her stomach.

 

**

 

Demon sat on my chest, claws dark and sharp. My arms were raised again, straining for the ceiling, fingers splayed. I felt each web taut between each finger. The skin of my hands was dry. The webbing pulled, began to split. I cried out, but there was no sound.

Demon pushed his face between my arms, dug his claws into my shoulders for leverage. His fur caressed my skin, then caught like barbs. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move. Dark spit dripped as Demon’s lips pulled back from his glistening gums. My shirt felt damp. My shoulders ached. Sharp slices of pain slid between each finger.

 

Demon pushed and pushed. His toothless, oozing gums were inches from my face. He tried to close his mouth, but his face was pulled too tight between my arms. He whispered. I couldn’t hear him through my pain. He whispered. I couldn’t hear him.

 

**

 

Six weeks later, Dilly wouldn’t go near David and I was drinking three or four gin and tonics just to get through the evenings. Drinking fuzzed my edges. Fuzzed out the screaming. Fuzzed out David’s face-crumpled pity or tight impatience. Fuzzed out the memorial service we had for Sam. Erased some nights entirely – when I woke up in the morning with a sticky mouth and a hole in my heart that for one whole second would feel unfamiliar until Sam’s death would slide in like a storm surge and fill the hole with grief and only grief.

 

I had drunk gin with Sam’s father, back before the kids were born. I stopped when I got pregnant with Sam. Sam became my drug, my drink. Then I married David, and after I weaned Dilly, David started pouring gin and tonics with dinner. I loved the buzz and fuzz, unfamiliar after several years. I loved the taste, sharp and fruity, like the hard, hardy juniper berries that lent their flavor.

 

Back then, David said gin was medicinal. That it would fix me up. I ached for Sam’s father still, in those first few years. His rough hands. His rich smell. He had been gone a lot even when he was around and that had been hard.

 

David was always present, attentive. When we got engaged, he quit the cargo crew and started at the office so he could be home with me and kids. And he was. Home every day for dinner, mixing my gin and tonic.

 

Sam had hated the smell of my breath when I’d been drinking gin. He said it smelled like “rotty fruit.” He wouldn’t let me snuggle close. He wouldn’t let me tuck him in. He would solemnly say good night, brush his teeth, get into his pajamas, fill his little dino cup with water, and close the door of his bedroom behind him. I’d hear rustling as he puttered around reading or drawing before he finally settled and turned out the light. When I’d knock and ask for a good night kiss, all I’d get was a muttered no.

 

Drinking became easier than pushing and fighting and trying and hurting and crying and remembering and living. So almost every night, David would pour the drinks and I would look over the rim of the glass, or through its sparkling clearness to see my children sitting across the table. See their round faces. Sam’s bright hair. Dilly’s dark. Their father’s eyes in both faces, round and dark and always wet.

 

Now just Dilly’s eyes through the glass of gin. Sweet, floral gin. Sweet little girl, eyes huge and dark, throat choking on her chicken.

 

**

 

Demon sat on my chest, claws dark and sharp. My arms were high, my fingers taut, deep bloody rips between each finger. Blood ran down my arms. I screamed and screamed. But there was no sound. Demon crushed all breath from my lungs. Demon snatched all sound from my throat. My mouth was full. I choked.

 

Demon’s face was touching my face. Fur brushed my nose. Hot, dark breath slipped over my lips. Demon’s eyes were huge and wet, dripping dark tears on to my cheeks. I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t move.

 

Demon’s skin peeled, split at the corners of his mouth and between his eyes. Dark muscle flexed tightly under his skin and fur. My arms trapped his skin as he pushed and pushed. We fought silently. But I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to let go.

 

Demon whispered, “My father killed me.”

 

I was sleeping. I was sleeping. It was a dream. I was sleeping.

Demon whispered, “My father killed me.”

 

I couldn’t move. I clenched every muscle, but they were already clenched. I was pulled so tightly.

 

Demon whispered, “My father killed me.”

 

**

 

David was out every morning, before I woke up, watering that little ugly old bush. It grew well, despite the dry summer heat. It flourished through August and September, even as the grass around it died.

 

The bush bore its berries, its cones, as David corrected me. Hard and hardy, fragrant and sharp. David started muddling them into our gin and tonics. The berries bumped my lips when I drank. I sieved them with my teeth.

 

David wouldn’t let anyone else near the juniper bush, but it wasn’t as if Dilly and I were spending a lot of time playing in the yard.

 

Every morning was hotter than the day before. Dilly would sob through breakfast until it was time to drive her to daycare. There, she would throw the car door open and jump whole-body into her teacher’s arms. I would drive to work listlessly.

 

At the beginning of summer I had decided to get back to work after years away. One of David’s friends needed a part-time receptionist at their car dealership. After Sam died, I overheard David on the phone one night. I think he was talking to his friend, convincing him to keep me on. “She’s fine,” he said. “She’ll be fine,” he said.

 

At work, I would sit at the front desk and stare at the picture of Sam and Dilly and me from Memorial Day. David took the picture. Sam is standing to my right, looking at my face. He’s wearing a canvas sun hat, like a fisherman’s hat, and smiling at me. I’m crouched in the middle, smiling at Sam. Dilly is to my left, squished against me, looking slightly over the camera, presumably at David’s face. My arm is around her, around her waist. She is not smiling. Her nut-brown hair is shiny under the sun. She’s not wearing a hat. Her eyes are dark pools under dark brows.

 

David didn’t like to take pictures with the kids. He instead made himself “king of the camera,” as he called it. I have very few photos of Dilly smiling.

 

After work, after staring at that photo all day, after answering phones with the same chipper greeting every time, after paging the salesmen to please come to the front to see Ms. Burgher or Miss Tartel or Mr. Ward who had a question about the blue Toyota Corolla, after making pot after pot after pot of coffee for the salesmen, after signing for folder after folder of registration materials run over to the dealership by a courier from the RMV, after my sixtieth conversation about the weather, after my third time in the bathroom sobbing, I would say goodbye and drive to Dilly’s daycare where she would scream and cry and struggle in my arms and unbuckle her seatbelt while we were driving, forcing me to pull over and wrestle her back into the seat.

 

Then we’d be home. David or I would cook. We’d eat in silence aside from Dilly’s chokes and sobs. I would drink my gin and tonic. My edges would fuzz. I’d stare across the table into Dilly’s dark eyes.

 

**

 

Demon sat on my chest, claws dark and sharp. My shirtfront was soaked with Demon’s blood and my blood. My collar was soaked with Demon’s tears and my tears, with Demon’s spit and my spit.

 

My hands had split apart; my thumbs were nearly parallel with my wrists, my fingers pulled to obtuse angles, bone bare, sinew torn. And still they pulled, as if only when my hands were perfect five-pointed stars would my body be satisfied.

 

Demon’s face was bare of fur and skin. Oily muscle glistened darkly around his mouth and eyes. Demon dripped dark blood and tears, indistinguishable.

 

My body burned and my mouth choked with thick spit and unscreamed screams.

 

Demon whispered, “My father killed me.”

 

Demon whispered, “My mother ate me.”

 

I felt the bones in my wrist crack. My shoulders strained. Demon breathed hot into my mouth.

 

**

 

Dilly started kindergarten. She stopped screaming and choking. Instead she sat silently through dinner and watched me. Watched David.

 

Dilly had a birthday.

 

We sat in silence around the Thanksgiving table.

 

Dilly and I cried through Sam’s ninth birthday. I drove her to his grave and we stood on the grass over his little empty coffin and we cried. David had to work, he said.

 

We sat in silence through Christmas. Snow fell in town. The river froze crustily along its edges, among the lumped boulders and next to the culverts. The middle of the river, its current fast and dark, did not freeze. Never froze.

 

The ground around the juniper bush hardened and David wrapped its roots with dark material.

 

I drank.

 

Dilly stared.

 

David worked. Always kind and attentive when home. Always home for dinner. Always working on the important days. Like he had been the week Sam disappeared.

 

The snow melted.

 

The crusty river ice thawed and the river rose to meet the damp spring air.

 

The little juniper bush shook off the winter and sent out tender light-green arms towards the sun. When the weather truly warmed, Dilly began sitting next to the bush when she was home. I would make my tea in the morning and walk through the wet grass to say hello to them both. Sometimes, I would find Dilly talking to the bush. Once, I found myself ruffling Dilly’s hair, then the bush’s little branches. They were the same height when Dilly sat. That night I drank four gin and tonics and woke up with my jaw aching and my pillow soaked.

 

**

 

Demon sat on my chest, claws dark and sharp. All I saw were dark eyes. Dark lakes. Dark oceans. Dark waves swelled like whales’ backs. Dark depths beckoned.

 

Out of sight behind Demon’s head, my hands were flickering points of pain. No precision to the pain

 

Demon whispered, “My father killed me.”

 

Demon whispered, “My mother ate me.”

 

Demon whispered, “My sister took my bones and buried me under the juniper tree.”

 

**

 

Dilly named the little bush “Sam” and now she’s started to smile again. She had friends over for a little summer party in the sprinkler and introduced them all to the bush.

 

**

 

Demon sat on my chest, claws dark and sharp. I smiled or felt a smile. My hands were white-hot pain, bare bone stiff and tendon tanging and flapping. I felt relaxed. My shoulders popped from their sockets, pulling toward the ceiling. I was loved. Demon’s lips touched mine and his eyes filled mine. I felt myself piss the bed beneath me and I also felt my heart fill with joy.

 

My babies were home. My babies were together.

 

**

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