That Old Pitchfork and Fire Urge

by George Looney

He and I both, dear Sister, know the odds against our having found one another. Together, he and I could account for every possible variable and carve the astronomical figures down to a pristine precision. But we also know better than to use numbers or any other representative, and therefore imprecise, system to calculate the probabilities or improbabilities of a human heart. Much less two of them. Is it improbable, after all, or just a remarkable coincidence, that I had chosen that month to take a vacation from my position as an adjuster at Erie Insurance? What is the probability that I should have decided to drive all the way to Riviere-au-Renard, a little town on the tip of New Brunswick that 132 runs through the center of and then gets the hell out of, heading all out for Chaleur Bay and the dingy bars of Campbellton? Not even with all my actuarial tables and my fondness for equations could I figure the odds of my leaving my motel room in the midst of a rain storm, and a cold one at that, to walk on the cruel joke of a local beach just when the fragment of the iceberg my beloved was still encased in washed up not twenty yards from where I stood singing an old Dan Fogelberg song and letting the rain soak me down.
All this becomes more probable when you figure in this growth on the left side of my face that pulls my lips into a sad imitation of a mouth anyone would ever think of kissing. All my life, folks have looked past my shoulders when they had to deal with me, at banks and the grocery and what not. Hell, Sis, for a long time even you and Mother could hardly bear looking at me. And you, at least, loved me somewhat. Even when we were young and you would torture me now and then, I knew you loved me. You always gave yourself away, how you let up when anyone else would have kept on making me suffer. That’s why it was so easy to forgive you when at last you broke down and begged me to.
The odds of my being on that ugly spit of land to witness the beaching of that sliver of a berg get better when you figure in, too, how my job keeps me well out of sight of most folks. Information comes to me through my computer and all my correspondence with customers is done over e-mail or by phone. There’s little wrong with my voice, and what slight mangling of certain sounds my malformed mouth is the cause of can be passed off as some accent no one can quite place but that seems familiar. That kind of lonesomeness gets into the bones and eventually you have to go somewhere new, a place where, even though you’re alone, like always, the strangeness of the landscape almost has the feel of a companion. Someone you might serenade during a rain storm on a sad little splinter of a beach.
Don’t worry, Sis, the nurse will be back any minute, despite the way she shivered when she saw my face. The limp and the way I drag my left foot on the floor didn’t seem to get to her, but my face, well, that does it to everyone. Everyone but my husband, the only one I’ve ever met who can look me in the face and smile. Not even you can manage that, Sis, and I know you love me. And yes, I know you like to say it’s not a smile but a grimace, but when you’re in love you can tell the difference. It’s like what happens when your husband comes by to pick you up at my place and take you home. I’d never call what you do a cringe, though someone who didn’t know and love you just might call it that and think the worst.
Odd, the emphasis we place on the slightest muscle contractions under the face. The body speaks, Sis, so loudly in so many other ways, but we look always to the face to tell us what our lover, or a stranger, might be thinking.
It could have been global warming, another set of statistics we might have to figure in, that sent that sliver of an ancient glacier down to come to rest on that beach on a cold and rainy day when no one should have been out to see it slide onto the beach and stay as the tide receded. It was simple curiosity that sent me over to it. As I got closer I could see what seemed to be shadows in the ice, my beloved’s form slivered into various incomplete pieces by the light as it passed through the various layers of the fragment of an iceberg he had come to rest in. There, in one flat surface, suspended, was the face I’ve come to love. My breath fogged over his face and a slight dent formed in the ice. With the whole of my body lying over where I figured his to be, my lips breathing over and over into his face and my coat draped over me and the ice, it took only three hours to be able to touch his face. I think I was already in love, Sis.
I’ll tell you how I can say that. I admit, he may not be what you or most people would call a looker, but there is a vulnerability in his face, and an openness, I’ve found in no other man’s. Besides, I’m not much to look at either. You and I both know, Sis, how the locals for years have chanted ditties about the hag who’s never been touched. How the boys in the neighborhood hurl pebbles at my windows and run off laughing. Even you, Sis, when we were growing up, you made up those awful names for me and had me crying almost every night in the room Mother made you share with your pathetic, deformed sibling. I remember hearing you tell Mother more than once that I should be kept locked up in the attic. Yes, I know you never said that when you thought I could hear. I was often listening when no one thought I was.
Like the night you and Mother decided to take down the mirrors in my room and in the bathroom I used. Both of you thought it was a kindness, to keep me from having to face myself all the time. At the time, maybe it was. But that ice my beloved came packaged in was a kind of mirror, and what I saw in it before it melted from his face was mine superimposed over the ice-shadow of his face and it looked right that way. My face looked right in a way it had never looked right before.
That ice was more than a mirror. Mirrors, after all, aren’t very imaginative. They keep telling us the same old familiar lies.
It was his idea to take them all down in our home, all but the small one surrounded by lights in the bathroom. He didn’t remove them for his sake. He told me one night, as we waited in our bed for our breath to return to us, that he had long ago come to grips with his appearance, that he was at peace with the scars and the discoloration that comes from being pieced together from any number of different bodies. He ambled through the house taking down the mirrors for me, Sis. He said he couldn’t bear to see the pained look on my face every time I caught a glimpse of myself in one of them. You shouldn’t have to deal with such pain in your own home, he told me. Just see yourself, he said, reflected in my eyes. That way you can’t help but see yourself as beautiful.
Yes, he says things like that all the time, Sis. And come on, who’d prefer some dull, unwitting piece of polished glass to a mirror like that?
Could you turn up the air conditioning a notch, Sis? Thanks. These contractions are beginning to make me sweat a bit.
Ah, the cool air reminds me of being atop that fractured hunk of ice, my beloved beneath me. As the ice melted, my body ended up lying on top of his frozen form, and I held on, my arms around him, hands pressed into the dark sand, my coat draped over the both of us. How many hours it took before he started to move below me I can’t say, but when he did he reached for me and pulled me tight. Of course it was just a reflex, his body, after all that time locked in the ice, reaching out to what warmth was nearby. But it felt like something else, Sis. It felt like love there on that ugly spit of land at the edge of a continent. And when I pressed my lips to his partly-opened ice-chapped lips and breathed into his mouth, he groaned and started to breathe, and I heard the tiniest cracking of ice as he opened his eyes.
He has told me he doesn’t know how long he was locked in that slab of ice. Long enough, though, he’s told me, to let him forgive people for how they shunned him. Hell, his own father tried to kill him, saying he was a vile thing and evil. The fact that my face was the one he woke to, he has said, made it easier to forgive everyone else. Waking to my face, he says, was truly a resurrection.
He says he had enough time in the ice to forgive himself, too, for the terrible things he once did out of anger. He doesn’t like to talk much about that first life of his, as he calls it, but he’s admitted he did some awful things. But after all that time, he likes to say, frozen in that block of ice, he figures he’s done his time, and then some.
I like to tell him the ice, it kept him fresh for me. He laughs, and yes, Sis, it is a laugh, despite what Mother thinks. He laughs and takes me in his huge arms and pulls me off the ground and into his body. It took him a while to learn not to hold me hard enough to crack a rib, but now he can hold me to him and I don’t feel any pain at all, nothing but this remarkable warmth and a calm I’ve never known, not even as a child.
Do you remember, Sis, the game we used to play after Mother had made it clear you were going to have to sleep with me in that room of ours? You’d have me stand next to my bed, pull the sheet off it and drape it over me. Then you’d tell me to hum some song we’d heard on the radio and I’d start humming and every time I hummed a note wrong, and you were the final judge of every note, you’d hit some part of me hard with a pillow and laugh. Remember how good I got at humming the popular songs? Got so good I almost never missed a note. Though there were times you said a note was wrong when it wasn’t and hit me anyway. But I’ve forgiven you for that. You could have said a whole lot more notes were wrong than you did, and that’s what I think of now.
Besides, just between you and me Sis, you have no idea what my humming does to him. Heck, all I ever have to do to get him in the mood is to start humming a song I know he loves. He says no song ever sounds as good to him as in my throaty hum of it. My humming puts me in charge, Sis. I control his passion and what he does to me with promises of humming and threats of withholding humming. If it hadn’t been for our childhood game, the one you made me play night after night in that bedroom we shared, I probably wouldn’t be as happy as I am with my husband. He’s a sucker for a good humming.
You’re wrong, Sis. Believe you me, you’d get over what you call revulsion as soon as he started to touch you. Come on, Sis. There was a time the thought of having to just share a room with me turned your stomach, but you got over that, and here you are holding my hand without a single cringe. It’s love that turns us on to what flesh can feel, remember that. And Mother is wrong. She only remembers the movies, and you and I both know how wrong they got it on film.
It’s those damn movies, that’s why Mother and others, even you still, Sis, you all look at him and think of those movies and picture him lumbering through the house knocking things over, huge and graceless. Remember how you suggested different arrangements for my dishes and my knick knacks, to keep them out of his way? Remember how I laughed and danced around you, singing that old song about how you dropped my heart and it broke? Remember my telling you how wrong you had it? How foolish you felt later when you watched the two of us dance all through the house, To break it in, he said, laughing, without knocking over anything that could break?
Even when he’s not dancing, Sis, he waltzes through our house, his every motion measured and perfect, his body moving deftly from room to room, like an entire modern dance ensemble moving as one across a stage lit up so as to help the audience notice the tiniest flickers of form and music. Any minute, Sis, he’ll waltz in here with Mother in tow. No doubt she’ll find something awful to say about him and you, Sis, you’ll cringe, but he won’t. He’ll just smile and dance his way over to me and kiss me and even Mother won’t be able to say anything bad about the kiss.
Trust me, Sis, you can’t begin to imagine what he can do with that body of his. Being with him each time is like a resurrection. Do you know Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Teresa rising towards heaven, her ascension? That look of ecstasy caught in stone? I’ve heard it said that he’s some sort of demon fallen to earth, cast out of heaven like Satan himself, some say. They’re wrong, Sis. He’s an angel, one who knows all there is to know about the pleasure the body is capable of. I swear, sometimes, Sis, when I’m in the throes, I hear this music purer than any sound produced by any instrument, a music that seems to be coming from my body and from somewhere else to engulf my body at the same time.
They’re coming closer together, Sis, the contractions. Where is that nurse? Maybe she’s scared, Sis. Think how long it took you to look at me without cringing. And you still cringe a little whenever he enters a room. Maybe he’s with Mom out in the hall and she saw him and headed for a different floor. I know that with most folks he still brings out that old pitchfork and fire urge.
It’s just that they don’t know him, how he’s governed by this nearly insatiable need to be loved. At times, Sis, it’s almost like he’s still an infant, with an infant’s desire to love the world with all he has, to reach out to it, embrace it, to kiss it, taste it in his mouth and feel it pressed against him so every nerve under every inch of skin is raised to full awareness by the touch. How can I explain to you, Sis, what it’s like to be that alive, to be that close to such a willingness to live? There’s no painting or work of sculpture anywhere that can hold this kind of élan, this kind of life.
The contractions are right on top of each other. It’s just about time. Could you go out into the hall, Sis, see if he’s gotten here with Mom yet? He should be here by now. He promised, and he is reliable, Sis. Even Mom has had to admit that. Compared to most men, she always says, anytime she’s going to say something nice about him. Most men, Sis, couldn’t come close.
You know, this doesn’t hurt as much as all the books said it would, as much as you said it would, Sis. I remember holding your hand as your first was coming out, how you squeezed so tight you almost broke my fingers. The pain almost seemed to hurl you out of your body, as if you had to leave first to show your first-born the way out. This I’m feeling isn’t bad at all. It’s more a kind of insistent nudging from inside me, almost playful, actually. Tender, I’d say. Yes, she’s her father’s girl, that’s for sure.