BY MARIAH GESE
The worm is trying to burrow into her hand, but Mora has let the dirt crumble through her fingers and it writhes on her naked palm. It’s searching for darkness, recoiling from our monstrous gaze. Mora brings her palm to her mouth and sticks out her tongue.
I watch, holding my breath.
She laps up the worm to make me shriek, then spits it onto the ground. It curls for a moment, stunned, then twists itself into the earth.
Mora pins me with her eyes. They’re the same green as mine, but hers see more, see through things. I know this now, sitting in the prickling grass, and I’ll know this later, when Mora is gone but the feeling of being pinned by her gaze is not. I’m young, not even a teenager yet, but Mora is as old as she’ll ever be.
“You were born with a worm wrapped around your throat,” she says. “Know why?”
I shake my head.
“You made it, out of your bad thoughts.” Mora smiles, angelic. “Mom kept you and took the worm outside. Any one of these could be our sister.”
It’s spring, and worms are beginning to nose out of the earth, lost, until robins catch them. We’re in the backyard, hiding from our grandfather. We inch closer to the ravine that divides the yard from the woods, a drop so sudden that even animals miss it. Every year the melting snow
uncovers deer carcasses on the ravine floor, rotting where they fell. We’re not allowed this close.
Our grandfather has lived with us for two months. He’s come here to die. That’s what our mother said, standing over the kitchen sink, bent like a crone to exhale cigarette smoke through the cracked window. She was on the phone with her sister in Baltimore. Every time they speak, my mother paces back and forth between the stove and the kitchen window, lighting cigarettes on the burner and smoking them down. She didn’t see me. If she had, she would’ve thrown the cigarette in the sink and glared at me until I slunk away. Skulking is the devil in me, she says.
When I told Mora about this, she was peeling back a patch of grass, inspecting the tiny, reaching tendrils. The roots were yellow-white, crumpled, and seeing them so exposed made me feel like my body would spring away, without me.
“Makes sense,” Mora said, still not looking at me. “That’s what you’re supposed to do when your wife dies.”
“He’s here because her house died,” I said.
Mora rolled her eyes. “Houses don’t die, Mal.”
Hers did. Her whole life, everyone called it Calla’s house, because they knew that it was. When her father found out Calla would be born, he bought a cheap piece of land in the damp hollow of the river and built her a house there. He built it high, on river stilts, to protect the family from floods in the spring and mountain lions in the winter. He even painted it a soft cloudy blue. Watching the house rise, her mother felt Calla’s life take shape as if waiting to be born was just a ritual, as if Calla was already standing before her.
We held her wake in the house, and that’s what did it. The earth beneath it heaved when our grandmother’s body was carried out. We felt it across the road, Mora and me. We’d already been sent home, Mora restless without bugs or plants to dissect. She hated winter. We felt the ground crack and then settle, uneasy and awake.
I wasn’t allowed to be a pallbearer, so I have to imagine how it went. I can see each nail popping loose from the wood as her body passes by, each stair giving in under her weight. Really, the house didn’t fall for hours. It waited until the sun had set, until there was no possibility of her coming back.
Our grandfather burned what was left. We watched him from the porch of our company house across the road. He stood in snow up to his shins as Calla’s house roared and spat above him, eaten by flames. It bellowed like an animal. The light was so bright that neighbors called our mother to make sure the holler wasn’t on fire.
“She wouldn’t like that,” I said. We stood in the garden and watched until the ashes stopped heaving and shifting. It was a new moon. We heard our grandfather’s footsteps crunch back to us in the snow, then the creak of our front door closing behind him. I could barely see Mora beside me, a fuzzy shape wrapped in blankets.
“What would you know,” Mora said. She adjusted my blankets around my neck.
Now that it’s spring, the grave of the house has come uncovered. We all pretend not to see the barren agony of it, untouched by snowdrops or worms or robins. I want to ask Mora or our mother what they think will happen to it, but they see this in me. They give me the same tired, warning look.
Our grandfather swings open the back door, holding a three legged stool and a hammer. He’s heading for the garden, where he’s building bee boxes. He narrows his eyes at us, to show us he sees how close to the ravine we are, and sets down the stool. “You girls are too curious,” he says. He takes a nail from his shirt pocket, sticks it in his mouth, and holds the two walls of a bee box together in a neat corner.
“Do you know what creature is closest to God?” he mutters around the nail. “Bees. They build beautiful things and they don’t ask no questions.”
He spits out the nail, positions it, and knocks it into place. The hollow noise stands out in the chilly yard, the only sound but the far-off call of a bird.
“Get away from that edge,” he says.
The company house was built by strangers, a box house in a line of many around the mountain. Like everyone else, we traded it for our father. Sometimes I imagine him buried in the foundation, so that when I lay on the floor and close my eyes, I can hear the heavy, bruising sigh of his black lungs beneath me. This house is no place to die. It will live on without us just fine.
“You’re the curious one, not me,” Mora says to me. She’s lying on her back in the grass, dangling her legs over the ravine. I leave her there, braiding strands of grass together.
I move out of Mora’s sight, something I know she dislikes, and I sit in the dirt of the garden, facing my grandfather. His hands look warped, molded around the hammer he holds. The knuckles are thick and seized, and he moves delicately, slow. I wonder what he’s waiting for. Watching him I feel included in this slowness, like the air around him is denser. It presses down on us.
“Why did you keep the house’s ashes?” I ask. He scooped them into the coffee can now leaning against the house, sunning in the dormant garden.
“You seen pictures of Calla when she was young?” he says. “Just the same as Mora. Like they couldn’t be in the world at the same time, sharing a face.” He pauses, aligning the next corner of the box. The rasp of his skin on the wood is loud, startling me.
“I want your sister to have some of Calla’s house,” he says. “I think she would’ve liked you both to live there.”
The thought of living on the mountain forever sets something crawling within me, and I fidget. I’m not glad the house burned, but I’m glad I can’t die there. I’m glad I don’t have a dead woman’s face. “I’m moving away,” I say. “Soon as I can.”
My grandfather smiles, still not looking at me. “I met Calla when I was your age.” He hefts the box onto his lap to fix on the bottom panel. “She was sitting on the ground in that copse of birch trees by the bend, half a mile up the river. She was skinning a rabbit, but I didn’t know it at first. Never seen a little girl do that. She teach you?”
I shake my head. I know how to set the trap, but that’s all. She taught Mora last summer and made me watch. I remember feeling sour and tense, far enough away that it was hard to see but not so far that Calla would yell. I watched her position Mora’s hands around the knife, and over the limp shoulders of the rabbit. They made a cut, then Calla wormed her fingers under the skin. She guided Mora’s hands, and together they pulled the skin from the rabbit in a smooth yank. Their heads were bent over it, so they didn’t notice me back away into the woods. I went down to the river, pulled off my shoes, and sank my feet in the mud. I pressed the soles into the sharp rocks underneath. I thought what I felt might balance out what Mora and Calla had done. Really it just meant I had to wear awkward, loose bandages on my feet until the cuts healed.
“I’ll tell you, I was afraid,” my grandfather says. “Looked at me like she’d skin me too, just for seeing her.”
The back door snaps open, making me jump. My mother sticks her head out, loose wisps of hair floating around her face. They look alive. “Come on in,” she says. “Dinner.”
I scramble up before my grandfather turns back around and run for the woods. I don’t want to see my mother. I want to think about whose face I have, who I might have chased out of the world.
Mora finds me later, sitting in the big branch of the white oak behind the house.
“You missed dinner,” she says. “Come down.”
I look down at her and pretend that I’m the oak tree and she’s Calla, fifty years ago. She can’t see me, but I can see time pass around her like only a tree can. I see the echo of her face, fading into nothing after Calla and Mora are done wearing it.
“We’ll play a game,” Mora says. Her eyes narrow, like she doesn’t like what I’m thinking. She reaches her hand up to me, catching at my bare foot. “You be good and I’ll be bad. Ready?”
She wants to race to the house. To see who is faster, good or evil. This is an old game. Mora is older than me and her legs are longer. I never win. “You can be good if you want,” I say.
Mora shakes her head.
Back at the house, the lights are already off. Mora left the kitchen door unlocked for me, and I leave it open too. I raid the cupboards, taking two slices of bread to drag through a jar of honey. I find the stairs in the dark, licking drips of honey from my hands.
Mora is already in our bedroom, kneeling beside her bed. She clasps her hands over a ragged old cigar box. She’s never let me see inside, and it’s her only secret I’m curious about. She takes the box out sometimes when we go to bed. Mora never keeps secrets just for herself, so this one must be for me.
Because I never win, I sneak up behind her. I push her shoulders and she falls onto the creaking bed, scattering the contents of the box. Dirt crumbles everywhere. It looks damp, and clumps of it drag root tendrils over her sheets. She looks up at me from behind her hair. I wonder if that’s the look Calla gave our grandfather.
“Do you want some?” she says, and scoops a handful up to me. I don’t move.
She shakes the dirt into her mouth like candy.
Now her eyes glint, making fun of me. She doesn’t sweep the dirt back into its box. She just pulls the bedsheets up around herself and turns her back to me.
I feel a helpless surge of anger, and I get into my own bed, staring into the wall until I can feel my brows aching.
“It’s like a prayer,” she says to the dark.
When our mother introduces us to her new boyfriend, she does it outside so she can smoke. Her face is moody and watchful, and she beckons us over from the garden to the dusty pick up truck parked in the drive.
“Girls,” she says, “this is Jason. He’s gonna trim back that sycamore.”
Mora murmurs something at him.
“Mallory,” our mother says.
“Hi,” I say.
No one has ever liked that tree. It’s been dying the whole time I’ve been alive, one huge branch twisting in some death rot over the roof and our bedroom window. Our room gets darker every year, blocked by the tree leering close.
Jason nods at us. “What’re you girls up to today?” he says. He has a nice voice, like somebody who doesn’t smoke. Our grandfather watches him from the garden.
“Picking mushrooms,” Mora says. He smiles at her. It lingers.
“Jason came up from Beckley,” our mother says. “He might stay for dinner.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “Better get started.”
We stand just beyond the edge of the woods, looking back at the house. The shadow of the trees masks us, making us bold. Jason gets up on a ladder and seems to be talking to our grandfather, who stands a healthy distance away with his hands in his pockets, sizing up the tree. I kick around in the underbrush, not really looking. Mora is the one who knows mushrooms. Mora is sitting in a nest of roots under an oak tree, digging her fingers in the dirt. Ants run across her knuckles in a crooked line. I can feel it just looking at them.
“People used to watch bugs to tell the future,” Mora says. “They’d watch ants hunting.” She picks up her hands, showing me the crawl. “Ants plan ahead. You can know the weather next week, when you’re going to die, anything you want.”
“What do you think of him?” I ask, still looking at Jason on the ladder.
“Let’s go,” Mora says.
She walks us deeper into the woods, bending down sometimes to unearth a mushroom and drop it in the basket I’m holding. I think about ants knowing the future, what it might be worth to them, until Mora puts a pure white mushroom in the basket. I narrow my eyes at her.
“It’s fine,” she says. “Come on.”
She takes the basket from me and I follow her back to the house.
Jason is climbing down from the ladder when we get back. Lopped off pieces of the branch litter the ground around him, scabby with their wasting disease.
“Here,” Mora says, offering the basket to Jason.
He smiles at her again. He brushes his hand over the mushrooms, and after a moment takes one and holds it closer, to inspect the gills. He pops it in his mouth. Mora stares.
“You know your mushrooms?” he asks. Mora nods. “What about that one, honey? He points to the pure white mushroom, nestled in the center, eye-catching.
She shrugs, unrepentant.
“Come here,” Jason says.
Mora doesn’t move. Jason reaches to take hold of Mora’s face, gentle. His hand cages her cheeks and chin, like he’s picking a fruit. He squeezes.
“Open,” he says. Her jaw is clenched. I can see the furious veins there pulse.
She opens. He takes the delicate white mushroom and brings it toward her mouth.
I watch, stupefied, as still as the dying tree.
Mora spits at him. Jason exhales something like a laugh. He drops her face, lets the mushroom fall. She runs off behind the house, leaves me there.
“She’s gonna tell my mom,” I tell him. He looks at me for a long moment, then shakes his head.
I remember our grandmother taking us for a walk, just me and Mora. It was early summer, but already the air was heavy and dull. I spent every day lying in the shade of our big white oak, unless Mora or Calla came to get me.
We walked into the woods, closer to the ravine than our mother usually let us. We were excited, looking for signs that the edge was near, that the earth was about to crumble away.
Calla stopped us in a clearing and pointed out the orange flush of day lilies. The sun was shining through them, making the petals glow. Mora made a disgusted noise and stepped closer.
Calla nodded me closer too. Mora was crouching in the lilies, her hand hovering near her face like she wanted to cover her nose. The smell hit me then, a heavy sweetness that closed up my throat.
The body of a fox was lying in the day lilies, hidden in the orange glow. I could see the white tips of ribs peeking through its fur, unclenching their grip. Mora was gazing into the fox’s body, fascinated by the lines of bugs marching inside and then away.
“Oh my god.” I remember hearing myself say this without feeling it, without opening my mouth.
“There’s no god, honey. Only the ground.” Calla bent down to cup my face in her hand, and she pulled my chin up so I had to look into her green eyes. “And it wants us back.”
Jason comes over again to haul away a broken generator, then to till the garden, then to fix the creak in the porch steps. He stays for dinner. I liked the creak.
Now it’s getting near sunset, and Jason’s truck is still in the drive. Mora and I are pulling weeds around the urn of Calla’s dead house, in the forgotten edge of the garden. The woods are fading into a blur behind us. In the dark, the ravine has an empty, skin-crawling pull to it,
making me turn to see it, to make sure we haven’t inched closer somehow.
Mora loves pulling weeds, really any excuse to bury her hands in the dirt. She pulls out beetles, and we watch their tiny legs churn, reaching for the safety of the earth. A worm curls out near where I’m kneeling, and I lean away unconsciously. Mora notices, smirking.
“This one’s our sister,” she says. She raises her eyebrows. “She has a secret. Do you want to hear?” Mora picks up the worm and dangles it close to my face, until I swat at her. She laughs.
“If she’s our sister, why can you talk to her and I can’t?” I say.
“It’s what she wants. She’s jealous of you. That you got to be a girl and she had to be the worm. I keep her away so she doesn’t crawl in your ear at night and take your place.”
“What’s the secret?”
Mora gives me a look. I see myself reflected back in her eyes like a shadow. “I’m going into the woods tonight.”
“To see someone,” she says. She pats the worm back into the garden. She points at a weed I missed.
I pull it. “Alright.”
We stare at each other for a long time. Mora hums a song Calla used to sing. I get up, brush off my knees, and walk back to the house, telling myself I’m going because the warning pang in my stomach is hunger, telling myself Mora will follow when she feels it herself.
When I see him, I leave the window and creep down the stairs, avoiding the glow of the tv and the murmuring voice of our mother. I open the kitchen door, slow, and close it behind me in time to see Mora and the tall shape of him disappear into the woods.
I follow them. They’re walking slow, swaying close to each other. Mora’s taking him to that same clearing, where the lilies grow in the summer.
The only climbing tree near enough is a sycamore, its lowest branches cupped and gnarled like a hand. I lift myself up, feeling the bark flake off into my clothes. From the third branch I can see out into the clearing, where Mora is whispering to him.
I nearly lose my grip when I hear Jason’s voice. I listen harder. There’s no moon above us, and the noises they make below remind me of the rustle of voles in the undergrowth, small and secret. Mora laughs.
The sightlessness makes me light headed. I fill up my lungs and let out a shriek.
“What was that?”
“Mountain lion,” says Mora’s voice. She knows what it was.
“It didn’t sound like no cat. It sounded like—hell, I don’t know.”
Mora shrieks then, a laugh, and I hear the two of them crashing further into the trees.
The next day I sleep late, and I avoid everyone until the afternoon. When I come back to the house, finally hungry enough to risk my mother’s questions, I hear her shouting in the kitchen. I crouch under the window, crabgrass prickling my legs.
“Mora, his car is still here,” she says. “What the hell do you mean, he’s gone?”
The kitchen door bangs open and Mora runs out towards the woods, hair loose and whipping behind her. I hear her voice on the breeze and I can’t untangle it from the high laughing sob of the wind.
I walk around the house to the garden, where our grandfather is sitting on the stool, surrounded by half built boxes, smoking. He looks at me, knowing. My ears pound with a rushing hum of blood. I look down at my arms, hands, skin, looking for what he can see that I can’t.
Mora doesn’t come back that night, or any other.
Down in the ravine, there’s a crop of pure white mushrooms, caps nearly glowing in the dark of the trees. I’ve never seen them here before. Bent around them is a broken animal, its shape relaxing into the dirt. It’s still, tensed in its final threat. The skin is weeping in places, punctured by the fall. Beetles and flies already crawl their steady way into the ruptures, taking the life away. Its hands are clenched in the dirt, mud-streaked, and I think, I’ve heard of mushrooms like that, spores like hands unfurling from the teeming soil. I didn’t think I’d ever see them this close. I shouldn’t have looked over the edge.
I wake up before the birds, pulled from darkness into tense, early silence. I wait for something to make a noise or to skitter across the room, but nothing does, and I see nothing unfamiliar in the softening blackness. I get up and walk barefoot to the bathroom. I sit on the toilet and my body crumples, a pain that contracts like a fist. Blood in the water. It curls and fades across the bowl, spreading into a pink sheen.
I stumble out of the house. Without thinking, I’m across the road and in the empty, black plot of my grandmother’s house. All that’s left is a delicate shell that I crush into the new grass. I trail ash behind me into the woods. The empty ground under the trees is soft and soundless under my feet.
I’m going to the river. I can hear the fog-muted hiss of the current.
The river is bloated and sinking into the rotting winter bank. The water glints, new and pure from winter sleep. I step into it, lulled by the bright chill.
My body tenses at a sloshing downriver. Something is wading against the current, towards me. For a moment I think it’s Mora.
The mist curls and I see nothing, nothing, until a huge gray shape stains the mist. It’s a house. Calla’s house, wading to me. I can hear the pop of nails bending out of the wood, the splinter and crack of the beams as the house walks up river. The current swirls and gurgles around the stilts, like it would pull the house down. Clouds of river mud billow up, each step, the house creating its own curdling shadow.
The water grips me, leeching me of warmth and movement. I can only watch the house slosh closer. The windows are dark. I look for movement behind them, an animal noise tensing my throat. The house stops in front of me and waits. I reach out and press my hand against a graying wooden stilt. I flinch back. My palm is red, two long splinters embedded in the flesh.
The dawn is starting to burn the mist from the river, tendrils rising like smoke. The house lurches out of the sucking mud of the bank and into the crush of the woods, fleeing the smoke like it remembers burning down. I follow behind, dazed.
The house climbs the hill. It stops over the black earth where it burned, waiting. I walk around to the front steps. I know that something’s playing out in the house, a secret shared between my grandmother and Mora. I need to hear what they’re saying.
I ease one foot onto the first step. The house shudders at my touch, and is gone.
Later, in my mother’s house, I sit at the kitchen table and stroke the splinters in my palm, examining them in the growing sunlight, until my mother comes down to make coffee. She looks young. New and afraid. I’m not myself. I’m the graying old splinters of Calla’s dead house in my palm, pinned in place and watching her.
We haven’t spoken since Mora left us. I don’t know where she went, and the only person I can ask is a conjuring, a sister only Mora can see.
I take the cup of coffee my mother hands me and I lean open the kitchen door. I hand the cup to my grandfather where he sits on his stool finishing his bee boxes. He hums, tuneless, the same song Mora was humming. I walk out into the yard, where I can see the scorched hill of Calla’s house and the edge of the ravine in the corner of each eye. I lie down, feeling the weak sun and the damp, new grass, both grasping at my skin like they’ll consume me. I wait. I hear the rasp and click of bugs below me in the earth, matching my grandfather’s humming with a soft urgency. My eyes close.
There’s no other sound, no birds. Only the tense indrawn breath of the earth waiting to exhale. I’m suspended in the tiny noise of legs, of antennae nosing through the dark. I feel a slow, cautious touch on my jaw, faint and wet from the earth. It feels how I imagined. A worm drags its body over my skin, testing the give of my flesh. It’s looking for new darkness. The rasp of bugs dampens, all sounds dampen. The worm slides into my ear.