Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Tent Worms by Kathryn Youther

source. This is an edited version thereof. Less theft, more precis.

The summer I turned eight, the thin bushes my sister Ruth and I called the little trees. The worms stretched webs around the leaves curled dead and dry like browned babies.

Our father put on his thick gloves. Ruth and I watched him trim the branches into the can, awkward work. He would maneuver its end into the trash can, tipped at an angle. He cut the branch. Twelve mummy branches stuck out of the metal.

I stood behind Ruth and saw our father squeeze lighter fluid into the trash can. He set fire to the worms with a match; a smell something other than what I knew from cook-outs.

Ruth took my hand. Dad lit a cigarette. Ruth brushed the smoke from her face.

"They look like they're dancing. Dance with me," she said.

We started swinging our arms back and forth. Then Ruth began to turn, started spinning fast. I followed and soon we were dancing like worms. Our hips moved in small circles. Ruth began to hiss, I fell to the ground and watched my sister.

Dad flicked his cigarette into the trash can. "Go get the garden hose, Lizzy," he said.

I dragged the hose from the house, the spool squealing from rust. I ran back to the spigot.

"Ready," he called out.

I twisted the knob. Ruth stood, mouth open, panting, watched while our father filled the can. The smoke thinned and then stopped. I heard the sizzling in the branches and Ruth's breathing.

"You hot?" Dad asked Ruth after a minute.

She nodded. He raised the hose and put his thumb over the mouth, swung the hose from side to side.

Ruth closed her mouth and watched. Our father aimed the hose at Ruth's feet. She jumped back and he laughed. He turned the hose on the little trees, one direction, then the other.

Ruth stretched up her arms to be watered. I ran to join her. Dad moved the fall where we stood. Tiny streams moving along the edge of my shorts and down my legs.

The next year, Ruth set fire to the little trees. She said later she'd only meant to clean out the tent worms. She, in the early morning, struck a match at the base of each shrub.

Our mother found her in the hall, hips moving in worm circles. I watched Ruth from my bedroom. Mother took Ruth into her arms, wrapped her in a blanket.

She sat, Ruth against her chest while father stomped the fire. When he came into the house, Mom looked up.

"She's got a fever, she's on fire."

A year or two after Ruth left college, she fell from a fourth story balcony at an apartment building across town. I mentioned this to my mother. I told her that I couldn't stop thinking about the fires.

"Ruth fell. She didn't burn."

She turned and walked away from me, went to my father, who put his arm around her. I saw them talking. He looked across the sanctuary at me, shook his head, face creased with frown.

I remembered that the front door was open and the light from the fire lit Ruth's figure, feet bare with wet grass. I also remembered the hospital that same night and falling asleep in the waiting room, Dad tapping a cigarette against his watch crystal, lips were pressed into a tight line.

"Don't make this any harder than it has to be," I could imagine him saying in my ear. But he didn't cross the sanctuary. Father approached the coffin.

Ruth was dressed in a thin fabric, a gray web wrapped her body. My father reached down into the coffin and drew Ruth up into his arms. Her head tilted back limply. His eyes were closed. He was dancing. Ruth's arms marked time against the coffin, the soft beat.

I touched my father's shoulder, he stopped. I took Ruth from his arms, folded her hands, kissed her forehead. Then I turned to my father. Soft, quick gasps escaped from his mouth. I took his hands, began to swing our arms back and forth, back and forth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know all writers are skittish when people touch/alter/do anything to their work, but can I ask that you restore the opening sentence? Then I'll keep quiet.
-K Youther