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Stephanie Renae Johnson

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stephanie renae johnson

Straw

by Stephanie Renae Johnson

 

 

Now, listen. This is why I need you.

Most fathers don’t dip the moon into bottles of their own tears and booze. A father shouldn’t tell his daughter that her moonbeam body echoes her mother’s. But he did, with his mouth and with his eyes. That was why we were going to run away: just our hands clasped tight as we roved the hills. Our bare feet and the mountain laurel. Some sheep, maybe, to keep us warm. We were going to fill our mouths with lamb’s quarters and dandelions. We would find what we could and steal what we couldn’t.

We figured, the world owes us anyway, for setting her up with a dead ma and a pa stuck in a bottle. I’m not much better: a dead pa and a ma who disowned me. A mangled creature, she called me. Sick, she growled.

Her pa is a monster. Coming from me, that’s an insult.

That is why, Grandpa—I need to know how to spin straw into gold. She’s in the tower of that mansion right now, and I need you to tell me how you did it all those years ago.

No, I can’t find Ma. She’ll just spit me out again like a bad batch of moonshine. Just show me … please.

 

Grandpa, the forest at night is a cacophony. Stars swirl in a raucous chorus, coyotes yip and howl; the mosquitoes and cicadas are a damn racket. Since being ejected from home like a knocked-over nest, I’ve grown in the woods. My toes are callused blue with the dirt of these mountains. I know the rough of the bramble; my heels are pricked and pierced by blackberry bushes. But I’ll never get accustomed to the night time symphonies of these azure ranges.

I’m surprised I heard her over it all. She was in the corner of my vision, an extra tangle of roots in the kudzu, until I heard the heave of her sobs.

“Oh hell!”

Trying not to trip when you’re barefoot on a mountain is an art form I’m still learning after all these years. I fell into her lap.

“I am so sorry,” I muttered, sitting up and brushing the dirt from my arms. “Are you hurt, miss? Do I need to carry you home?”

She smiled, despite the rivers carved into her cheeks.

“No, but thank you. It’s just–” she breathed out. “–my father.”

“Ah.”

For lack of anything better to say, I plucked an ivy leaf out of her hair.

“Here,” I handed it to her. “For good luck.”

“Thank you … I’m Brenna.”

“Stilt.”

“What a funny name!” she laughed.

“It’s a family name,” I muttered.

“Oh.”

The woods resumed their noise. I hadn’t noticed it stopped until the drum thrum of “talk-to-her-talk-to-her-talk-to-her” bludgeoned through my mind.

She talked first, though. Her voice was like a newly minted coin, silver and round.

“Do you often walk in these mountains at night?”

“I live here. So…yes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…” She looked over my shoulder and noticed my clearing.

“It’s fine. I’d rather be here than there.” I pointed at the carpeted view of Ashburn spread beneath our feet.

“It must be beautiful to live here. Have this view every night.” Her chin tilted toward the town, the blinking fires below, the crooked dark line against the other side of the sky.

 

This has happened before, Grandpa. Runaway girls from the town find their way up to my mountain. I never ask for them, but they stumble up as if led. The least I can do is make them a cup of coffee and listen to their reasons for running away.

After the tears dry from their cheeks, they smile at me, they push my hair away from my eyes. They tell me I’m beautiful. They might even kiss me before descending back down the mountain. But then, they realize, they only like the idea of me: the mountain recluse with un-brushed hair, long legs, and longer patience. It’s the reality of me, especially when it comes to taking me off the mountain, introducing me to their kin, their everyday life, the concept of showing me around town on their clean, slender arms that end in uncallused hands. That’s when girls become aware that I don’t fit into a dream life. I’m not a fairy tale ending. You don’t find people like me in any kind of nursery rhyme picture book.

 

That night, I remembered how gold looks when lit by a fire. As I leaned the wood together in a triangle and flung the flint to the center, her hair gleamed. She stared into the flame, but I stared at her.

“So,” I asked, sitting next to her in the dust. “Can I ask what your pa did to deserve you running away up my mountain?”

She laughed. “Your mountain?”

I grinned and glanced around. My pewter coffee pot hung from the branches. My ax stuck up from the stump of what used to be an oak tree.

“Do you see anyone else living here?”

“No,” she allowed. Her smile was like the moon, whittled down to halfway nothing.

“My mountain, then.” I sipped coffee out of my mug and refilled her cup.

She stared through the distance, past me, past the valley below. I almost didn’t want to interrupt her for the fear that her next words would be goodbye. But her lips parted.

“My father is . . . insisting I do something I don’t want to do.” I noticed a dark shadow along her neck as she pushed her shining hair aside. Its twin rested on her wrist. “So I came to the hills to decide what to do next. Seems like I’m not the only one.”

“What will you do next?”

“I’m not sure.” Her eyes swept over my camp. “Why do you live up here?”

I opened my mouth to tell her the same half truths I had told other runaway girls. My parents died. I never had parents. I was raised by mountain men. I was raised by coyotes. But the truth slid out instead, slick as wet leaves.

“When I was ten, my grandpa, my father’s father, fell sick. A little bit of…” I bit my tongue. Never tell, my pa said, never tell anyone about us. “A bit of medical ability runs in my family, so my pa spent all night taking care of Grandpa. But then my father got sick, too. My grandpa got better. My pa didn’t.”

“Your poor mother. What did she do?”

“She went wild, stopped talking to my grandpa. She blamed him for everything.” I stopped, but her eyes were tangled around me like thorns, so I continued. “My ma kicked me out a month later when she found out that I…” Biting my lip, I looked down at her hand in the dirt, inches from mine. They were the same size. Our chests rose and fell with the night air.

“Oh,” she breathed. Her tongue darted forth from between her lips, licked the top, then the bottom. She stared at me and I swear she was finding my soul, just looking at my mouth.

That’s when I fell in love with her.

 

I know you think love at first sight doesn’t happen, Grandpa. I know it took you three nights and a miracle to fall in love with Grandma. It took longer for her to return the feelings. We, as a family, are not that attractive. You have scars from the seam where Grandmother sewed you back together. I remember Father’s bulbous nose that he said you gave him.

And then there’s me. All my unattractiveness collected in my insides, Mother said. All my evil stored in my blood stream underneath my freckled skin and dirty hair. Ma said it must’ve gotten mixed in with the magic blood, like somehow sin came with the ability to make one thing turn into something else. A sickness.

Before Brenna, I didn’t believe in instant connection, either. I was raised on fairy tales just like everyone else; I knew there were witches for people foolish enough to believe in love that took only an eye blink. Witches took a poor girl’s legs. One fed a princess poisoned fruit. I was above all that, high on my mountain, just me and the coyotes, watching the moon. Or so I told myself, nights I was so alone not even the lightning bugs pitied me.

 

But Brenna was different. She listened; I didn’t feel like I had to settle into a type of misunderstood castaway for her. We spun our pasts out in front of the jumping fire. Each laugh that escaped her mouth seemed to hold eternity.

“Do you ever miss town?” she asked as the stars blinked with fury above us.

“What would I miss?”

“Pretty bar maids.”

We both laughed. She had told me how she earned a living, leaning across a bar to serve beer to red faced men. Her laugh sounded like wind in the leaves: airy, musical.

“But I’ve got a pretty bar maid right here,” I boasted. Her eyes glittered at me, the firelight caught up in them. “Besides, there’s so much more to the woods than below.”

“Tell me about it,” she implored, then miraculously—like she’d been planning it all evening and just waiting for the right time—rested the top of her head on my shoulder. The skin there tingled and burned, dancing under her fire-like curls. How many nerve endings can be in my shoulder? It felt like a thousand crinkling constellations had been swept under my skin. I gingerly, carefully, slowly, stroked her hair. It was so soft underneath my hands.

“It’s like this: once you get rid of the people, once you take away the clopping of carriage wheels over brick, every noise lasts longer. I’ve heard bird chirps that have rung through my head for hours. Everything is … easier here, because it’s just me.”

“And me!” she laughed.

I was quiet. I didn’t know how to respond to that. They always leave, these girls. That’s what makes them runaways.

She spoke again. “I wish my world was peaceful like yours.” Her eyes squeezed shut as if blocking the noise out. “My father drinks. And yells. And drinks more.”

But he keeps you. I didn’t say it because I knew how awful it would sound—the man who hits you, makes you work in a stinking bar—at least he doesn’t send you away. So instead, I put my hand over hers and watched the night fall backwards into day.

When she kissed my cheek at dawn, before she clambered back down the mountain, I never expected to see her again. So I watched her as she left, until I couldn’t make out the golden dot of her head on the dark horizon.

 

No, Grandpa, ma won’t help. She’s happier without me there, just her new husband and her pink baby daughter. Ma can only offer the wrong kind of gold. I need straw and all she has are coins, courtesy of her new husband.

In this matter, especially, I don’t think she’s likely to help me. Situations like this are the whole reason she kicked me out. To her, there’s no difference between Brenna and Violet, other than the fact that Violet lies under the earth and Brenna walks above it . . . and even that difference, I’m sure Ma would prefer to fix.

 

Brenna came back the next afternoon. Sitting on the horizontal tree trunk I call my parlor, swinging her feet in the late summer breeze, wearing the sunset in her smile. I almost dropped the armload of wood I was holding. Instead, I set each log down one at a time, staring at her. “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged. “I missed you.”

“How did you know how to get back here?”

“I counted the steps I took back down the mountain and added twenty.”

I placed the last log on the damp earth, still not breaking eye contact with her. “Well, sure, with that logic.” I paused, my chest a jungle. God. I swore she could hear it outside of me; it echoed over the whole mountain range.

“I missed you.”

“When you say that, what exactly do you mean?”

She hopped off the tree trunk and dusted her hands on her dress.

“I mean that I…” She took one step toward me, covering more than half the graying afternoon between us. “Missed.” She put her hand right where my heart felt like it was going to shoot out of me like a bird taking off. “You.” She pulled my face down to her hungry lips. Every sinful kiss, every reason my mother no longer loves me, was all worth her in that moment.

 

Oh, hell. Yes, Grandpa, Violet was that girl at the farm down the way, always stomping with me through the rivers and the dust. You’re remembering right: yes, the girl with hair the color of the earth. But when the fever swept through these hills, when you got sick, when Pa got ill, so did she. She died the month after him, that July that was so sticky hot. Remember? Your fever had broken, but we couldn’t tell because we were all sweating like fevered folk?

Ma found me praying over Violet’s body. Except my prayer, my lips hovering over hers, was the kind of prayer Ma’s God never would hear. Sinner! I can still hear her shrill echo. That’s when I took to the hills. That’s the last time she saw me.

Grandpa, I just need to know how to help Brenna. Please, please, tell me.

 

“Brenn?” I whispered into her hair later that evening. The golden strands held my words for a half-second before she turned to face me. Her eyes were still closed, but fluttered like a butterfly balanced on a falling leaf.

“Mm?”

“Why are you really here?”

“I’m really here because I want to be. Now go back to sleep. It’s night. Unlike you, I’m not nocturnal.”

The skeeters outside convinced me even nature has a metronome.

“Brenn?”

“Stilt, what?”

“I mean. What about your pa?”

“What about him? I’m gone. I’ve left.”

“And what? You just came home, said ‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I’m running away to live with the ragamuffin I met in the woods less than twenty-four hours ago?’”

“Not exactly, no.” I could barely see the thin branch of her mouth.

“Well, then, how exactly?”

“I just left.”

Visions of pitchforks and flaming pyres stamped through my mind. Me, barbecued on a spit. Me, tortured alive, my legs braided shut. Me, eyes plucked out.

“You didn’t say anything?”

“No.”

“You didn’t leave a note?”

No.

“Did you bring anything with you? Anything of his?”

In the dark, her silence.

Then, “Why do you ask?”

I sigh.

“Because I took something from my Grandpa when I left, and I regretted it later. Now I still have ties with him, I still have something of his, something I don’t know what to do with. He still speaks to me, even when I’d rather not hear.”

“What’d you take?”

“What did you take, Brenn?”

“Money.”

“A lot?”

Her hair on the pillow of leaves made a nod, a tender rustle.

“You need to give it back. It’s dirty money.”

“But it’s money we need.”

“No, we don’t. We’ll make it.”

“How?”

“We will, Brenn. Just trust me. We will.”

“Okay. Tomorrow morning, I’ll give it back. But I’ll return by dusk.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

A finger poked my side. This girl was lightning, worried to playful in a cricket’s chirp.

“Not fair, you never said what you took.”

The constellations above swirled with my breath. I got up, dusting myself off. Brenna brought herself up to her elbows, watching me as my arm disappeared into the trunk of a hallowed tree. My fingers closed around the thin wheel, the miniature spokes. He’d shrunk it long ago, as a spectacle for their one wedding guest: their baby. My father.

“I took my Grandfather’s spindle.” The weight of it boomed in her palms.

She examined it carefully, as if her fingers held a dying crow. “Why?”

“Because it’s the only indication I’ve ever had that love is real.” I remember the fireplace in my childhood home. Father’s scratching voice, explaining how his parents came to this country, these hills, with nothing but dreams and sheep. The wooden spindle spun between my fat fingers. The center spoke twirled as I laid on the rug, half asleep.

Brenna put her head on my chest and I held her close. From the tops of the trees, we must have looked like two fox pups, curled against the dark.

 

I know I shouldn’t have pressed her, Grandpa. Don’t you think that I know that now? I stood on that mountaintop, watching the sky fill up with messages of “no” the second she didn’t come right back, the hour the sky turned black. I screamed her name into the sky that night until a thousand crows flung from their trees and whipped around my face.

Are you going to tell me that in the year you and Grandma hid your love, in the time you plotted the midnight shout of your name in the woods, her faked nervous attack, her pretended insanity, her leaving the king, you never made a mistake? No, Grandpa, I know how close the prince came to knowing your ruse, how close he came to suspecting the new baby prince wasn’t his. I’m not the only one who has been tricked by the holes in a late night plan.

 

The following morning, I left the mountain. I bathed. Washed my face and behind my ears just like Mother taught me. There’s no soap in the woods, no indoor plumbing running over to make sure I got every last kiss of dirt off my face.

But I did it. I stumbled into Ashburn—the bright metal song of the blacksmith shop, the leather breeze of the cobbler, and everywhere, the selling. Dollar signs looked like snakes twisted over sticks. This is the world she comes from. This is the world I left. My stomach riled with acid over each shop window; some part of me knew it was where she’d return after me.

I counted the steps and added twenty, just like she’d said, but I had no idea which way that twenty needed to go. I pulled on the sleeves of strangers, but they all shuddered me off.

 

When you try to find an alcoholic’s daughter, Grandpa, you go to the town bar. Because either he’ll be there, or she will, trying to drag him off the stool. I didn’t need to look long; I followed the men whose steps curled like a chipmunk’s tail. All bars are the same, and this one was the brown variation on the theme: stinking, a row of men at the counter while the sun still hung outside on a rope.

At the center of the bar, I found her father. He looked exactly like she would if all the wishes had been sucked out of her, leaving leather for skin. Much as I hated to, I knew that the one way to make a man like him talk was to buy him a beer. I uncrumpled one of the last green bills I had saved from the days I used them myself.

He sucked down the dark, frothing liquid from the wide mouth of the cool glass, after tipping it at me.

“Much obliged,” he muttered. I nodded and leaned over a seat next to him.

“Mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked, my thick anger for him housed in my stomach. I tried to keep it from welling up into the back of my throat onto my tongue.

“You some kinda reporter?”

I ignored this and wielded my own question back at him. “Where’s Brenna?” He took another swig of beer. My rage started to taste bitter between my teeth.

“You must be the wild one. Didn’t know you were the type she wanted.” His eyes traveled up and down my form, stopping at the space right below my clavicle. “Makes more sense, now, the fit she threw when Henry stopped by to collect.”

“Who’s Henry?”

“Henry Kilgilt?” He squinted harder. “Are you not from around these parts?”

“I’ve heard tales. Lives in a giant house on the top of a hill.”

“Not just that. The closest thing the Carolinas have to royalty.”

But what neither of us said out loud was that he had a mean streak: even as a mountain recluse, I heard whispers, passed along stories of what happened if you dared go to his parts of the forest to hunt. They say he wasn’t above skinning humans, too.

“What about him?”

“Well, Brenna’s been promised to him for a while now.”

“What? She barely knows him!”

“That’s not true. They grew up together.”

“She didn’t mention-”

“Of course not. Why would she tell mountain scum?”

I bit my tongue. My fingers tightened into a fist, but stayed by my side.

He continued. “Their mothers grew up together. When Jenny died, Charlotte started to take Brenna on. When Brenna started to look like Jenny’s ghost, Charlotte wanted her son to marry her dead best friend’s daughter. It was the least she could do.”

“The least she could do is not steal a young girl!”

“She didn’t steal her. She died before it came time to collect. Henry was just fulfilling his mother’s wishes.”

“Why would a rich man want to marry a bar wench?”

“A bar wench who works so she can keep her father fed and dry,” the bartender interjected.

“Shut up, Jeremy, or you’ll lose a patron!” He threw the rest of his glass right over Jeremy’s head, but it landed against the wall and came to the floor in an uninterrupted crash. Jeremy blinked and went back to dipping what used to be a white cloth into mugs, swiping it over the glass sides and bellies. His eyes were trained at the floor, but his mouth was a white line of lightning. He doesn’t approve of this any more than I do.

“I told Brenna a couple of days ago, right before her sixteenth birthday. She threw quite a fit, that girl. I s’pose that was when she stormed off to the woods and met you.”

“Guess so,” I murmured.

“Good for her, you sent her back to me to return my drinking money. Guess I should be grateful to you.”

My stomach lit on fire and my eyes blurred. He still rambled on, his arms flailing out.

“—problem with promising your daughter to a rich snob like that is that he doesn’t always see the worth in her, not even in the fresh grave of his mother and her promises. So I told him she could turn straw into gold.”

I blinked at his stupidity. Those three words back at me—straw into gold—gripped their fingers around my gut. My family history followed me here, across the generations. The room was too small now. My feet didn’t have enough room. My lungs didn’t have enough air.

“Why straw into gold?”

He shrugged. “It’ll make Henry more wealthy. It’ll make me more wealthy.”

He believed his own lie. He was that drunk or that stupid or both. My fists tightened around his collar and I lifted him off the bar stool; he was just another log of heavy wood.

“But she can’t,” I hissed into his face. “What is he going to do when she can’t?”

He shrugged and spat at me. The glob landed between my eyes, dribbled down my nose. It smelled like feces and beer. I dropped him back down.

“Doesn’t matter. She’s not my problem anymore.”

My fists left sweet kiss marks on his nose and cheeks before my hips punched the swinging door on my way out.

 

That’s why I came to you, Grandpa. More logical folk would say you can’t hear me, but I know you’re still here. The spindle turns. The blue jays shriek in your raspy voice, the whooper wills capture your whispers. Your stone says nothing other than your name, but I need you to speak now, and not just with the wind through the trees. Please, Grandpa, you’ve talked to me before. You told me to stay in the hills, be brave.

I’m trying to be brave, Grandpa, but my hands have nothing but your dirt now. My lover has never touched golden hay, just greasy, creased dollar bills. You did it once. You turned straw into gold for a simple farm girl you loved. Here’s your spindle even: I brought it back to you. Please show me how your fingers touched the wheel. I need to know, for her.

 

 

BIO

stephanie renae johnsonStephanie Renae Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of The Passed Note, a lit mag for young adult readers by adult writers. She is also a recent graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Master of Arts in Writing program and has just finished her first book of poetry. Her work has been published by Parenthetical and Penny, among others. She was a finalist for the 2016 Claire Keyes poetry award, judged by the award winning poet Ross Gay. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her fiancé and their seven bookshelves.

 

 

 

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