‘Madonna on a Country Road’ by Joe Taylor

Just out of high school, just in college, seven of us packed into a Ford Galaxie for a nighttime country romp. Well, I’m lying on one point: Galen was just out of the Navy, had never been to college. There were three girls and four boys salt-and-peppered throughout the huge car, though again, Galen surely counted as a man, having served nearly four years. He’d been released early because of his political views on Vietnam. He sailed on the sister ship of the Lester Maddox, which wound up in some troubles in those Vietnamese waters, while his own ship cruised the bars and brothels of the Mediterranean to hear him tell it.

It was fairly on into this night, pulling close to eleven. No property lines as yet had been drawn between the sexes. You might say the surveyors were still working their transoms and plotting the lay of the land.

We were drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and Boone’s Farm, smoking cigarettes, saying all the silly things youth are up to saying, and driving on a country road that temporarily paralleled Elkhorn Creek on the right. Every road in Fayette and the surrounding counties sooner or later seemed to parallel this creek. It was winter and it was cold, with patches of snow remaining from a storm ten days before.

A house lay ahead on our left, its white outline glaring a death-mound of persistent, smothering snow. As we neared it, Libby and I screamed. The driver, Tim, stopped the car, and we screamed again, joined by Goldie, a tall blonde who fancied himself a poet.

“Go! Go!” Libby yelled.

She yelled because on the front porch of the Kentucky shack sat a figure this side of pale, emitting an actual yellow glow. Neither the bitter cold nor our presence on the road made the least impression on the figure. It sat rocking, rocking, rocking, staring somewhere that wasn’t our where.

Tim sped off, spinning the rear wheels on black ice.

“I think he was nude,” I said.

“In this cold?” Galen asserted.

“He had a rifle across his lap,” Goldie said when we stopped a hundred yards away, where the road veered from Elkhorn.

“She was a woman,” Libby said, “with yellow hair and a baby.”

“In this cold!?”

“I’m saying what I saw.”

A beer tab popped, two cigarettes got lit. Libby rolled down her window and looked back. God, don’t get out, I thought, almost touching her tan woolen coat that smelled of kittens.

“I hear something.”

We all listened. There was a high drone, like wind in trees or tires on a long silvery road leading straight to the moon. But the sound didn’t increase or decrease in pitch. A dark movement slipped through the winter-straw underbrush to our left.

“I once had a calico kitten,” Libby said. I felt her breath on my cheek.

“I think it was a weasel,” someone in the front seat said.

“Out of the water?” Galen commented. “The creek’s on the other side.”

The droning wind rendered all our statements true, as surely as it rendered all of them false.

“It’s going to snow,” Libby stated.

“It’s been clear for three days,” Galen countered.

“What’s that have to do with anything?” This from Libby, who shifted, her right knee bumping mine. While Goldie pretended to be a poet, Libby led her life as one, for the motions of this earth never seemed to tabulate much with her: rather, her ears were always listening for some ethereal sound, her blue eyes always chasing some slanting light, her thin hands always twitching at some promised caress or threatened nip. It turned out that two years later she would declare herself a lesbian. Of course, this made her all the more attractive to me. I think, though, her real reason for declaring herself so was that this drastically diminished any human contact she would need to make. I know, I know, sexual inclination is not a choice. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Libby had no choice.

“A baby,” she insisted. “Back there. The woman held one. I think she was nursing.”

We just had to drive back on hearing that.

“I could back up,” Tim suggested.

“Yes,” Libby said, her face once more pushed out into the cold, her hair whipped with a sudden gust.

“What if I’m the one who’s right, and he does have a rifle?”

The rest of us didn’t need any hooting owl, keening wind, or flashing lightning to urge caution. The decision was made to circle

around and approach from our original direction. This time, Tim turned out the headlights before we neared the house. Except we never neared it. We all leaned forward, searching the ribbon of road, but only darkness reached into the car. Tim braked several times as black creatures scuttled on the road before us. Soon, we were back at the turn that led away from Elkhorn Creek.

We had to have missed it, Tim decided, because the car lights were out. Libby again rolled her window down.

“There, hear it?”

The same drone presented, higher, louder. Tim again suggested that he could just back up, but he was once more voted down, even Libby joining in on the side of prudence, plus she feared we wouldn’t see the black kittens going backwards and might run over one.

“They’re not kittens.”

Not weasels, not kittens, I thought.

So after circling, Tim drove even slower and kept the car lights on. Maybe a hundred feet away, the house’s outline showed through the trees.

“Douse ’em,” Galen said. Tim turned off the lights.

We drove ever so slowly—I could have kept up alongside in a stumbling jog—but once more we found ourselves at the turn that led away from Elkhorn Creek, and once more there was no house. Libby fluttered her long-fingered pale hand out her window.

“Snow,” she said, pulling her hand in. I couldn’t believe that I reached to touch it, but I did. Of course, any snow that may have been there had evaporated. Libby recoiled at my touch.

“That cry, it’s not kittens, it’s human, it’s a baby,” she commented. “A tiny baby, a nursing baby.”

Three more windows got rolled partway down, and we listened. The wind, the wind, the wind. Snowflakes as large as my thumb fluttered like Libby’s fingers.

A third time we circled, with the same no-result result. Tim thought he saw rubble from a foundation, but it was just clumped weeds.

“Sailors avoid the Bermuda Triangle if they’re smart.”

But Libby opened her door and bounded from the car. Now, impossible thumb-thick snow swirled in a mad dance, already accumulating on the road in our headlights. My heart leaped toward

Libby’s retreating figure, as my surveyor’s transom focused boundary lines hard and clear. I too scrambled from the car.

“Libby!”

In my mind now, these years later, she ran like an eight-year-old, her calves and arms flailing at odd angles. But I know that then she ran with intent, not slipping—I was the one who skidded on an ice patch—she ran with hard intent toward the spot where the house should have been.

Behind us, a mix of admonitory shouts and drunken hoots erupted from the car. My hand stung where I fell, but I righted myself and ran on toward Libby, who had left the road to jump a shallow ditch and enter a line of thin trees. Wet brush and twigs tore at my face as I followed. Snowflakes fell on my forehead and cheeks, melting or glancing off. Something dark flashed to my right.

“Libby, please!”

And then, in front of us sat the house, illuminated in wavering yellow as if rows of Edison’s original filament bulbs lighted the wrap-around front porch. We both stopped. I had nearly caught up with her; she was within arm’s length. I held back, though, from reaching out, remembering her reaction in the car. Black hunks and patches like repressed memories skittered atop the railing guarding the porch, while snow sifted through the trees, which grew thicker around the house, the opposite of what you’d expect. It was as if the trees were congregating and keeping vigil. A steady creaking channeled underneath the moaning wind, coming from either the trees or the house itself. I looked to the porch and once more saw a figure, rocking, rocking, rocking. Libby let out a guttural yelp and stretched her right arm forward. I’ll see her that way now sometimes before I go to sleep, all these years later: her long fingers splayed, her tan woolen coat straightened. I know that her cherubic cheeks are facing the house and the Madonna. I know that she is the Madonna.

Libby was right: the figure was a woman and the woman was cradling an infant. On hearing Libby’s outcry, the woman protectively covered the infant, and, standing to turn from us, entered the house, giving us one last fright-filled glance from the door, which banged.

The snow turned incredibly thick, belying Galen’s judgment about clear skies. The wind that had been moaning now howled. A back door to the house slammed. A tree or a heavy tree limb crashed to the earth. Off the house’s back porch—I made this out through white

railing that hung at my eye level—a woman leaped and began to run, shuffling side to side the way someone does when she is carrying a weight close to her body.

“No! No! Stay for me,” Libby pleaded. She began running toward the woman.

I ran after Libby, looking back—that’s what we humans always do, isn’t it? Look back?—looking back to see if the others were coming to help. I could make out the car’s headlights back on the road. I twisted about, but there was no house now. I thought, I must be facing the wrong way. The car horn blared, pulling my glance again. I heard hooting and music. Then I saw the five of them in the car’s headlights. They were dancing with abandoned exaggeration, their knees lifting to their chests, their arms akimbo. One of them pumped a branch like a spear in the air. Their dance circled around a slithering black weasel that writhed up into the freezing blackness and seemed to dance with them.

“Libby!” I turned and ran toward her. A vine snagged my right foot and I nearly fell.

The woman with the infant had advanced so far that she was hidden by the thickly falling snow, the trees, and the underbrush. Now only one figure ran ahead of me, Libby. I closed in, making out her tan coat and her bouncing yellow hair she had gotten up into a ponytail.

“Libby!” This time, a vine did trip me and I fell hard enough that my breath left me. From overhead came a vast inhalation, which turned into mortal gasps. The black branches, wintry and deprived of leaves as they were, bent inward and downward and outward with those gasps. “Libby.” This time, my call seeped out weak and factual, as if I’d spotted the distant exhaust of a bus that was to carry me to midnight Christmas Mass, where I was to meet my true mother. The branches overhead were still swaying inward, outward, downward with their huge gasping breath, except now the branches were clacking with ice and fright as they swayed. They sounded like the telling of rosary beads, the tabulating of an abacus, the last clatter of a baby’s rattle as it rolled under a dresser to be forever lost. The wind whistled, the snow swirled.

I lay on the cold ground in that country of no-consciousness that a yoga practitioner would label no-mind meditation. Except that my mind struggled mightily to find its grip. The wind whistled, the snow swirled. Two figures running, waddling heavily under their loads. Two figures becoming one, running under its load. Running under her load. A moaning that became gasping, that became howling, that became

keening. The wind whistled, the snow swirled. A thud that became a falling limb. A thud caused by a vine or root. A beating that became so regular that I went to sleep. A beating that quickened, so that I awoke. Liquid, warm, life-giving liquid filling and pumping through my lungs. Air, rushing icy air, filling and pumping through my nostrils. My nostrils that burned from cold, from heat.

I gagged and startled, coughing, my head in Libby’s lap. Her fingers skittered through my hair, which was sticky and wet. She peeled something from around my head. It was thick and moist, and it quickly transferred all its warmth to the open air. She tossed it on the ground, where it made a heavy, sloppy plop. My eyes felt glued, as if some kid had taken flour paste and covered them. Still, I fought to open them and search.

“Where is she? Where’s the baby?”

“My baby,” Libby cooed, peeling another damp, iron-smelling skein of flesh from behind my right ear. This she also tossed aside. It made a wet plop and my eyes opened. I saw a black creature dart and gather the skin or whatever it was in its teeth, shake it viciously, and turn away.

I realized that I was shivering, that the only warmth was coming from Libby’s lap. “How’d I get so wet?”

“My baby,” Libby cooed again, giving a jerk of her fingers to pinch and pull mucus from my right nostril. I breathed much easier and realized that my lips had been puckering in a sucking motion. Libby touched a finger to them. I heard a button pop, and Libby placed it in my shirt pocket with a smile, her fingernail scratching my chest enough that I inhaled. Then she bared her breast in the cold and bent down. I sucked in thin liquid warmth. I felt Libby’s heart and timed my suckling to its beating, beating, beating . . .

“How’d I get so wet?”

“You fell out . . . you fell into Elkhorn Creek.”

“We need to turn up the heat,” a voice interrupted.

“It’s as high as it’ll go,” a second voice replied.

“The creek’s on the other side of the road,” I said.

“It’s everywhere,” Libby replied. “Everywhere.”

 

Years later, at Libby’s funeral—she had overdosed—when I was looking down at her pale face, her yellow hair, pristine in her blue-bronzed casket, I keened like the winter wind that night, though it was

mid-summer. I keened and I sucked in air, bending over. A friend of hers grabbed my elbow and put her hand behind my neck, pulling me outside the funeral home, into the summer sun.

There, after I was able to breathe and stand on my own, she told me that Libby had lost an early third-trimester child when she was sixteen and had never . . . Some asshole punched her stomach. / Her boyfriend? / I don’t know, probably, if you want to call him that.

This friend had been with us on that wintry drive. I asked her why they were dancing in the road. What do you mean, she replied. / Dancing. In the road. I saw you all in the headlights. There must have been some dead animal you all were kicking as you danced around it in the snow. / Animal? Dancing? We waited in the car until Libby yelled. / You mean when she yelled at the woman carrying the baby? / What woman, what baby? There wasn’t even a house, just a leaning shed. You were drunk and fell into the creek. That’s why she yelled. When she got you into the car and the dome light came on, you were covered head to toe in blood and black crap that looked like afterbirth I’ve seen mares slough off, about five pounds’ worth of the horrible, slick stuff. She reached, just as Libby had that night, to pinch my nose.

I’d kept, through four wallets, the as-good-as-virgin white button that had popped from Libby’s blouse. I pulled it out now and showed it to our mutual friend, who shrugged in confusion. There was no sense in trying to explain. Behind her, I saw pallbearers carrying Libby in her casket, at rest at last and alone at last. “Libby,” I called weakly. Momma, I thought. The world clogged about me and I once more swayed, then coughed and opened my mouth to breathe.

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