Clifton’s home is the same as anywhere; curses and miracles happen in the same small steps, and the difference between the two are twin mysteries. But it’s not the same, too. For one, it’s not a home, it’s a three room apartment in a building otherwise abandoned. His dim room is a smear of browns and shadows and has his bed and nothing else. There’s a doorway leading in and, directly across from that on the opposite wall, a closed door. The closed door leads to the outside, what was once another entrance at the top of a long-gone set of steps.
Clifton often sits in the floor and listens to night sounds — crickets, peepers, vehicles rushing past along Route 460 — and talks back to them, especially the peepers, which he’s sure must be somehow holy. These are some of the miracles.
The other miracles are in a lively place where he lets go of the world. Here even God only notices the slight weight difference of one soul. Against a sky scrubbed of color, Clifton feels that difference, too. He works hard to remember who he is and who is watching, how he remembers they claimed at vacation bible school it was said, I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.
From John Attic Ridge to the Atlas Flats, the mountains whispered to him that all suffering is the same.
What can a mountain know of the human heart? I can know this: all the time there is a bruise blotting out like a spill somewhere on her chin. The bruise will stop its spread when the frozen fog passes over her eyes. In the center of that bruise there’s a cut no bigger than a clipped pinky nail. He tells her no one cares; she thinks no one knows.
She defeated a difficult life before ever meeting him. Caught once at the very outer spin of an Indiana tornado with her two younger brothers, she held tightly to them and found home through a mile of swirling debris. Both her brothers screamed just as loud as the thick body of wind. The weather reports called it a wedge tornado and she was privately proud of her courage but did not speak about the day ever again. Her connection to nature remained strong, though, and occasionally that world expressed itself to her. She would carry that with her until the birth of her son, when it left her and, she was sure, belonged thereafter to him.
The end begins in violence with that bruise but it echoes a phrase somewhere lost to time: I had a length I could be proud of. The truth, when seen together in that bloom, could be a pre-eulogy for a near-death.
His rage begins when he sees a scalpel tipped with blood, but it could as easily be a knife, old with a bone handle and flint blade. And there in the distance is an altar in the shape of a question mark.
Tonight he holds his breath and thinks of his grandmother. Word of her death was visionary, hazily skimming a beloved horizon, creating rings in water and surely a moan carried on the wind. Visionary in that visions were created, even as the source was possibly fading across a secretly miraculous cosmos. Painted in sentiment and splashed about in something like sadness, those of us left circled one another. He moved sideways with the rest of the family, their feet champing at the earth. We were animals whiplashed to excitement at the autumnal reality; we too would one day see the secret miracle of the cosmos. Most of the time you couldn’t see how blue her eyes were. She sat with her head bowed, reading or thinking. Praying. But in photographs you could see the moony shape of her eyes, half-lidded, even the psychic pain, decades old and hidden, when she looked directly at the camera. In her day she was wild too.
It has always been these curses and miracles. Even before the dim room, his earliest memory, one that must have happened around Christmas, is made of the suffering often unique to both. His mother couldn’t believe he was telling the truth.
My legs hurt, he said to her. I can’t walk.
He’s stretched back on the bed, his legs dangling over the bottom edge of the mattress. Santa is outside. He knows this with all his heart, believes it because his bruised and lonely mother says it’s so, must believe in this dream she is having.
He’s right there, Mom says, motioning with both arms at some distant, magical point beyond the open front door.
The snow is flaking down. The hillside across the creek is salted so that the brier brush and razor weed are mostly white. The trees stand slanted and quiet behind her. If they know the truth, they’re not telling. And still she swings her arms; and still the razor weed is witness and victim to a slow, snow-burial.
I can’t walk. He says this over and over and it’s mostly the truth.
He could walk, but it would hurt. And so there’s Santa outside and to get there means pain, but his mom isn’t waving her arms anymore and her face is pinched and windblown. There’s a tightness around her eyes and mouth. It could be the wind and it could be her nerves. He hears about her nerves.
Know this: my trees covered in lichens will never turn you away. You’ll have a place to stay as long as my bones weather through the flesh of the earth to make cliffs that cool in the shade. Stand sideways as you near my peak and rest yourself again on my kneecap of stone. Think of me and think of rest and escape and the building blocks of a nostalgic comfort more powerful than religion or the gods for which it was made.
Mine is a silence so still it conjures its own rhythms, a darkness that does not threaten but will hold you instead of push you away, a patience that has watched the great flood and the skyfire that was the end of the giants alike. Knowing this, can you really expect to find a better friend, a place so perfectly carved up from the earth that it might as well have been built for you and you alone.
It was your loneliness that opened the way for me. Come stand in the backyard beside the creek where the puppy drowned last summer and see how, even in a place with that much sadness, I can cover it all in silvery light.
Clifton’s sad, brown bedroom is the same as anywhere; but he has traveled so far in his mind, a swallow today homeless. And now the wind has changed. He moves his miracles outside — the dusty backyard hidden into a corner of the town so that it’s a distant place he can breathe and feel nearly safe. He throws a baseball against the brick walls of building and catches without a glove. He practices hitting the same brick as many times as he can, counting hits as strikes and misses as balls. A nine-inning game comes and goes with sun, but night closes in. Clifton folds himself tightly, folding, folding, folding in on himself until he’s barely there at all by the time he walks the steps back into the apartment.
In all this time, she has been listening to the mountains without knowing she has been listening, leaning into the open window watching Clifton play catch with the wall. When he comes in just before dark, she takes him up into her arms. Listen, Clifton, he gets angry when he thinks about what they did, all the blood, and the cutting tools and the cutting away a part of him. This is what he says he sees in his rage — a knife, old, with a bone handle and flint blade. And there in the distance is an altar in the shape of a question mark. Do you see it?
On the very last night Clifton remembers a story about his grandfather. Papaw’s ghost appeared during house repairs. “Daddy’s still helping us,” an uncle said when they found an X on the sheetrock marking a stud. He wasn’t dead then, only bedfast in a nursing home.
The last time he went to see Papaw goes on and on in a loop behind his eyelids: a family member, a great-someone, pulls the sheet back at the foot of the bed to show a pair of smooth, shiny legs. From the knees down there’s nothing that looks human. “Look what they did to him,” the great-someone says. His legs had started withering at around mid-calf it seemed. From that point the muscles tapered to the ankles, which were slim and discolored. The worst was his feet. Beginning at the ankles, they became darker, black in places, and curled into one upward swoop where the toes should have been. “I could have went my whole life without seeing that,” is what someone said.
If he’d had the chance, Papaw would have parted his work shirt and shown Clifton his sacred heart, would have said, “Because what you need to know, son, is I don’t have to show my teeth. I command the dogs. And so do you.”
Sheldon Lee Compton is a short story writer and novelist from Kentucky. He is the author of seven books, most recently the novel Dysphoria: An Appalachian Gothic, and is currently at work on his first nonfiction book, The Orchard Is Full of Sound: On Breece D’J Pancake and Appalachia, for West Virginia University Press.