Excerpts > Summer 2003

Danna Layton Sides
look into their own dark places

look into their own dark places

As long as I can remember, I’ve heard the natural voice of every living thing around me. The natural world speaks to me. Not the way you might think though. Not with words, but with messages, like in dreams where everything is all jumbled together and makes perfect sense until you wake up, and then it’s up to you to find the deeper meaning in it. The only way I’ve been able to explain it to the three people I’ve ever told, is the way the apple tree outside my window communicates with the natural world. Leaves rustle, branches sway and voices deep and warm lilt on the breeze, embracing me in their songs and I know somehow that the tree is saying goodbye to the season, or thanking the rain for a good drenching, or warning the owl sheltering in its branches that a hawk is circling overhead.

In the spring I can hear the gasps and moans of newly plowed fields when farmers split the earth’s back wide open in rows. When the sun drops into the lake, shooting pink and gold rays across the briny surface, I hear the field lullaby it’s new crop to sleep, and through the early morning tumult of birdsong, all the hopeful little sprouts singing hymns of adoration as they eagerly push up and out of the soil to warm themselves in the sun’s love. The house talks to me too, though I wish it wouldn’t. Most folks think a house can’t talk, that it’s not alive because they can’t see it take a breath, but it takes a breath all right. It sure does. Sometimes I think if I just ignore it, it will leave me alone, quit telling me what it knows. But it won’t. It knows I hear it and it has stories it’s eager to tell, just like how the mighty weight of a secret can pester a soul into spilling all.

The sun shines like a golden halo against the turquoise sky during the spring and summer months, and well into fall. The Utah sky is colored a blue so harsh and unforgiving, it pierces straight to the heart, so that sometimes, just looking at it makes me want to cry. I don’t know for what, but I just want to. Rain or shine, I tend the runt lambs, mixing up powdered milk and water in an old Coca Cola bottle with a rubber nipple on the end, while my lambs bleat frantically, butting my legs with their moist black noses. The minute I walk out the kitchen’s side door, my lambs are calling for me, and they come running across the pasture, jumping in excited little arcs like you’d imagine they do when Little Bo Peep is herding them back home. They try to get to me through the plank fence and sometimes I have to lean over it and shove a bottle in their mouths until I can climb over the fence and feed them properly. Sometimes they get so excited when they’re eating, they knock the bottles out of my hands and I have to mix up more milk for them before I go to school.

Mama says my lambs start bleating for me once they hear the old school bus rumbling across the train tracks coming down Gentile Street. Mr. Stevenson, the bus driver swats me on the arm and winks when I get off the bus and says, Lizbeth, your babies are calling you. Some of the boys imitate him, calling out, Lizz-Beth, your babies, oh, your babies are calling you. I just ignore them, but I always have to mash them the next day at school, usually by a contest of skill. I hit them on the legs and back with the dodge ball hard enough to knock them over, or send the tether ball sailing so fast that they have to duck quick to the ground or have their brains scrambled. They seem to like their punishment and to tell the truth, I’d rather climb trees or arm wrestle with them than sit on the grass with my legs crossed under me, giggling and pointing with the girls, but I have a point to prove.

After I mash them, I take off running for the school to show them that on top of my mashing skills, I can beat any one of them back to class before the tardy bell rings. On mashing days, my best friend Joe usually leans against the old red brick wall next to the dodge ball court with his arms folded across his chest, looking the other way. It’s because he doesn’t want to draw any more attention to himself than is necessary. The last time Joe got involved in one of my tussles, Mark Taylor called him a dirty Jap right to his face and said he ought to just pack up and get back to Jap-i-an where he belonged in the first place. I told Mark he better shut up and made a vow right there to never let him win at marbles again and I’d make sure I got every steely back I’d ever let him win from me.

Mrs. Schofield, is my teacher and the morning playground duty. She always tells me I must act more lady-like when in the presence of young gentlemen or I will never earn their respect. I’d like to just once tell her I’ve never been in a young gentleman’s presence, except possibly Joe and he doesn’t count, and if I had, I’m sure a real gentleman would be impressed that I could beat him in a race, even if my shorts show under my dress.

After school, Mama and I prune her roses that grow like pink and red stains up the side of the house clear to the top of the gabled roof. They wrap their thorny tendrils around the carved banisters and white-washed filigree trim around the side porch. The roses are Mama’s proof the prophecy that the desert would blossom as a rose, is being delivered as promised.

While we’re out tending the earth with our gloves on, lopping off dead blossoms and stray shoots with garden scissors and pruning shears, Mama offers up her benediction to the natural world. She sighs and says, The world smells so sweet, only the meanness in men’s heart sours it, and then she’ll drift away. I follow her eyes searching for what it is out on the horizon that can hold her attention like that, but I can’t see anything but farmland stretching on forever until the lake or mountains stop it. She always tells me to appreciate the weeds we pull out by the roots, that they are God’s way of showing us our trials and tribulations to make us grateful. Without the ugliness of the weed, we wouldn’t appreciate the beauty of the rose. Mama says, Hello, God, to each rose bush, cupping the buds in her hands, breathing them in so forcefully that I think they might disappear. Sometimes seeing her with her roses makes me sad and a little jealous. She loves them so fiercely. I want her to breathe me in like that, tell me, Hello, God, with something other than her eyes. She says, Hello, God, to most everything: trees, wild asparagus growing in the ditch, sheep dumb as dirt, crows perched like omens in Poplar trees, and when we’re lying flat on our backs staring at the wonder of God’s creations in the shape of a cloud, she’ll hold out her arms like she could embrace the sky and shout, Hello, hello, hello, even when Daddy is burning ditches or planting nearby.

Mama doesn’t like to go to church too often, but she goes enough to keep the Relief Society ladies happy. She takes her position of Visiting Teacher very seriously. It gives her an opportunity to minister to her fellow sisters in the ward in the tradition of her mother before women went to doctors for every little thing. How she loves tending the sick, trying out new poultices or herbal remedies, and even though she says she doesn’t care about idle tongues and idle talk, her sitting in the church, singing hymns and taking the sacrament, with Daddy and me, helps keep rumors about her corrupt Lutheran upbringing from catching fire and spreading. Mama always says, God doesn’t live in a church, he’s right under my feet and above my head. Sometimes she’ll hold service in the garden; she’ll pluck a rose, hold it to her nose, her eyes shining like she might cry, and say, Amen.

Most days, I climb my tree and tell it, Hello, God. I read books, or sit watching whatever cloud or bird might wander overhead, studying mountains big and stubborn enough to hold a prehistoric lake back from making it to the ocean, or squinting out West at the Great Salt Lake where geese, honking in v’s, fly to shelter in the marshes. Seagulls feast all day on brine shrimp and gnats and anything else that floats in from streams emptying themselves out into the lake. The gulls fly off for the fields inland the minute they hear a tractor being hitched to a plow. If you believe the stories they tell in Sunday School, seagulls are compelled, the second they hear swarms of crickets or maybe any insects consuming crops, to swoop down in the thousands and annihilate them in God’s name. When Daddy’s out working his land, what I see from up in my tree is seagulls, pitching, diving, swarming in thick white rows, moving up behind the plow, quarreling with each other over insects and seeds, circling above the tractor in steady spiral currents until the sky is a blizzard of wings and piercing cries.

It’s times like these when the house can’t get at me. It gets so agitated it seems likely to burst its foundation, trembling from the terrible weight of its memory, that it can’t contain itself any longer. The ground shifts and the house will let out a grateful sigh as a spiritstory slips through layers of plaster, lathing, adobe brick, river stones, and mortar, unleashing itself on the world, entering the intestines of some neighbor passing by, walking up the road. I can tell the spiritstory’s got to them when they go pale and hunch over like they have the worst stomach cramps ever. I’m sure they try every kind of medicine known to mankind until they realize it isn’t a cold or indigestion or heartburn plaguing them, but their own stories coming back to haunt them, making them look into their own dark places. They don’t know it right off, but their own stories will take hold of them and shake them. Shake them fierce.

Sometimes the house sends a river stone flying from its foundation. Daddy just gets out the mortar and pastes it back in like nothing ever happened. He can’t hear the house talking, but he’s no fool. He knows something in the house isn’t right, just like he knows more than he lets on about the stories I tell him the house told me. The only time I told him one of the stories, one about the man face down in the ditch and the bread knife caked with dried blood next to him, his mouth tightened to a thin white line and his face flashed red clear into his hairline. Elizabeth Jane Hertzog, he said looking hard at the air above Mama’s head. Who has been filling your head with such horse shit? The house, Sir, I said, my eyes focused on the floor. Daddy became Sir the minute he called me by my three proper names. And, when he swore, especially in front of Mama, I knew I was doomed and better act small.

Jesus H. Christ. Don’t tell me this house is talking to you. Who was it? Stayley? Old lady Harris, that good for nothing Catholic? I couldn’t find an answer for him, so I said nothing. He had never called Jesus by his three names before, so I waited for the fire and brimstone I was sure would burn the house down around us. The house didn’t catch fire and save me from whatever was going to happen next, so I stood, head bowed, examining the polished toes of my leather shoes.

Daddy’s mouth widens out when he’s angry, and he spits out his words, emphasizing the meaning of each. His lips stretch flat like two purple worms squished parallel on the sidewalk and all the skin around them looks pinched. There will be no more of this kind of talk in my house, do you understand? he said whipping me with his eyes. Yes Sir, I said meeting his eyes before I looked back down and studied the floor. My hair swung forward far enough to hide that I was watching Mama out of the corner of my eyes. She was working hard to keep the corners of her mouth down. Daddy saw her bring her hand to her mouth in a stifled laugh and his mouth suddenly lost all its fierceness. He brought his hand up and I jumped a little thinking he was going to bring it down across my cheek, right in front of Mama, but he just pushed it through his thick black hair and let it rest on the spot where his hair was beginning to thin, like he was trying to keep the top of his head from flying off.

A dead man? Is this what you talk to children about? he asked the china plates, tea cups, and saucers in the mahogany hutch against the wall with a resigned sigh. Then he went out the side door and I could see he was headed to the barn to check on his bull. His lighter flared and the faint red ember of his cigarette glowed out in front of him.

I guess the house doesn’t know not to talk to a child about such things. If it does, it doesn’t care. It won’t stop talking no matter what I do. Sometimes, the house will shake me awake before I wake up screaming for Mama, sure the demons of Hell have hold of my nightgown and are dragging me down the stairs, out the door to the root cellar near the back porch, where potatoes wait with all their eyes wide open, and the damp cement is crumbling down the walls into little heaps shaped like pyramids. And worst of all, where mice scurry until they snap in two, dried blood gluing their noses to the wood, pinned to Daddy’s traps until he scrapes them off into a bucket. The house shakes me to tell me that torches illuminating the trees, horse’s eyes bulging in fright, legs kicking free of the ground, isn’t any dream born in my mind. It has to tell me. I have to listen. Sometimes the apple tree outside my window soothes the nightmare away, drowning out the house’s stories for awhile, the sweet scent of its blossoms embracing me, its branches singing lullabies of rainstorms and earth intertwined in roots deep and wise.

Mama can’t hear the house, but she has a powerful sense of smell. She says the house smells sad and a little bitter. Ever since she was a child she could smell emotion. She said she married Daddy because he smelled like love, said she smelled him across the other side of Mrs. Thomas Stevenson’s sitting room. How the story goes is that Mama stood under the mistletoe staring straight at Daddy until he worked up the nerve to walk over and kiss her, missing her top lip altogether, planting both lips hard on her lower lip. What an impertinent thing to do, Mr. Hertzog, Mama said to him through a smile. Daddy just smiled, then said, Yes, Miss Adams, but I think you was expecting it. Then he excused himself.

Grandpa Adams had been standing by the punch bowl and had witnessed the whole exchange. He poured two cups and walked to where Daddy was leaning against the wall. Here you are, son, he had said and handed the drink to Daddy. If you’ve got a mind for Delia, you know by now she’s going to do exactly as she pleases and there will be no changing her. You might as well spit in the wind. Yes, Sir, Daddy had said. It’s settled then, Grandpa had replied.

Grandpa Adams was a former Lutheran who had converted to the true faith. He prided himself on his modern ways. As long as he was alive, I remember he was proud to the point of bursting the seams of his vest and suit coat that he allowed his only child to fill her head with ideas about women working outside the home and getting advanced degrees just like menfolk, at the agricultural college up North in Logan. He didn’t mind that my Daddy didn’t have much to call his own other than a strong back, and his pride. Mama didn’t mind either and they married two months later after their mistletoe kiss and moved to the small farm out in West Layton that he had inherited from his spinster aunt. A year later I was born. Daddy wanted to name me after his own mother, Mary Cora, but Mama insisted on Elizabeth, after the great virgin queen who had ruled England and all the world where the sun shone in golden-red rays.

Mama always says my eyes are deep and stormy as the oceans our ancestors crossed to conquest. I feel powerful and a little bit dangerous when she says that. Like my blood courses swiftly and boldly enough to carry me out of Layton and across the mountains to a land of adventure and promise, like Egypt, with camels and pyramids and gods the size of mountains, even though I’m already supposed to be living in the promised land.

The secret side of Daddy’s family, that Mrs. Harris, the Catholic, told me about, slipped out by accident, and then was hushed back to silence; locked up and sealed like the cedar chest Mama keeps in the attic. Mr. Stayley, who owns the feed store by the tracks, was delivering wheat seed and he and Daddy were in the kitchen arguing. Daddy was dickering the price down saying he wasn’t going to pay for seed that was mostly weeds and that sprouted before you can get it in the ground. Mr. Stayely got mad and yelled, That’s a darn lie. You sent back ten sacks of perfectly good Turkey Red and never paid me full price for the ones you kept. A deal’s a deal. You order a hundred sacks, you pay for a hundred sacks. I’ve got a business to run. I ain’t gonna do none of your gotdarned Indian trading no more.

After Stayely said that, the whole world went quiet. It seemed like even the birds quit chirping. Daddy didn’t say anything even though his lips stretched wide and the skin right above his upper lip looked whiter than any snow I had ever seen. Stayley left quick, leaving his hat stranded on the kitchen table, before Daddy could pound him to mash. Stayley sends his boys with the seed now; they shuffle on the side porch, hats in their hands. Daddy makes them wait until he is good and ready and then he’ll go out and tell them to put the seed sacks in the shed next to the root cellar.

I asked Mama if we were all Indian traders like Daddy, and she gave me a queer look and searched my face for something. I don’t know what. After what seemed like a long time, she sighed and said, How can you be anything but my little Elizabeth? Run on now, and leave me to my mending. I told Mrs. Harris what Mr Stayley said and she snorted and waved her claw of a hand in front of her face and said, Oh, Elizabeth honey. You pay no never mind to what that old cheapskate Stayley has to say about anything. Not to worry, she said. Not to worry

Mama is a mixture of an oddity and a miracle in these parts with her herb potions and ways with women’s knowledge. She grows her special herbs in a little patch behind the house in a garden that is circled by a half moon of apple trees. She plants each herb separately in little heaped up earth mounds: lavender, black cohosh, catnip, comfrey, lobelia, fennel, sweet grass, blessed thistle, tobacco. We have to pick the herbs at the right time for them to be potent, and sometimes, the right time is when the moon is at its highest point before it begins to wane. When Mama’s working in her herb garden, she sings to her plants, talks to them like I talk to my lambs. Oh, look at this sweet little baby, head bent over and sad, she’ll say tying a sprig to a dowel to straighten it out.

We have to harvest Mama’s herbs at the right time even if I have to stay home from school to help, but that has only happened twice and when my teacher, Mrs. Schofield asked the reason for my absences, she made a special trip to our house to let Mama know my education should not be put in peril because of agriculture. Mama just smiled and asked her in for lemon verbena tea sweetened with honey from our very own beehive.

After we’ve tied the herbs with string into bundles, we hang them upside down from nails pounded into the ceiling beams of the root cellar. Then, when they’re dry, we pick the leaves off and seal them up in bottles to keep them fresh until we brew them or grind them up to make salves, powders, poultices, and ointments for the people Mama ministers. My favorite is making tinctures. First, we mix herbs with a pint of Daddy’s brandy, then boil it all down, put it in a jar and let it steep for four weeks. It’s my job to shake the jars lined up on the pantry shelves every few days to make sure the alcohol soaks up the healing properties of the herbs. Then we strain them and Mama puts them to work healing and comforting.

When we’re coaxing the herbs out of the ground so as not to bruise them, Mama and I play a game where I hold a clump of lavender or comfrey or any herb behind my back and she guesses what it is. She’s never wrong, but I still like playing it. She can smell its mood. She says that each plant has an emotion, a temperament; black cohosh is angry, lavender is sad. I can’t feel them, they look like any old dried up plant to me, but I can hear their little voices telling me what their mission in life is, how they can help and heal a body. Listening to them, it makes me wonder what my mission in life is.

Daddy tolerates Mama working for pay, which ends up mostly pay in trade: hand-crocheted lace, quilts, eggs, butter, milk, the like, even though we have plenty. Daddy says it reflects poorly on him. Every time Mama gets out her bag and starts stuffing it with jars and herbs, he says, A man’s wife shouldn’t work outside his house, not if he’s got two strong hands. Mama just smiles and heads out the door with her herbs wrapped in red cloth. She says it’s her calling to ease human pain and suffering; the coming in and going out of this life, and every sorrow in between.

Mama had been gone two whole days tending to Ada Young, helping her deliver her sixth child, and it was just Daddy and me shuffling around the house. Even though Mama was just five houses down where Gentile turns right on Angel Street, it seemed like an eternity away. Daddy was into his brandy. I was eating a bowl of vegetable stew, trying not to make any noise. He sat quiet for a long time staring at his hands thick with calluses and covered everywhere, except the palms, with hair. Even on the knuckles. It was always a wonder to me that Mama allowed such rough hands to touch her, to rest on her shoulder or encircle her waist, and even more of a wonder to me that she leaned into them. Daddy saw me staring at his hands, and my face must have revealed my thoughts. All of a sudden he pointed one thick finger out from his fist at me and said, You and your mama think you’re so high and mighty, ladies fine and proper, but let me tell you something, missy, you ain’t. He took another drink straight from the bottle, then shouted, Your mama with her prissy college education ain’t nothing but a damned orphan. Then he slumped over dead drunk, hitting his forehead splat on the mahogany table. I didn’t know what he meant by calling Mama an orphan other than maybe now that Grandpa and Grandma were dead, she was all alone in the world. I sat very still at the end of the table watching him, waiting to see what was going to happen next and watching the door for Mama to come home.

When he came to, Mama was home. I had already cried into her dress while she soothed my forehead, petting my hair back as she sang to me. She stuffed a lavender sachet into my pillow, and tucked my blankets tightly around me. Then she went downstairs to doctor Daddy.

I stood at the top of the stairs where you can see into the kitchen and the sitting room. She was standing over him, hands locked into fists on her slim hips. He looked up at her, and I could see he was concentrating on getting both eyes to go in the same direction. She slapped him twice hard across the face, cracking the bone in his nose with a loud pop, and splattering a thin line of blood across the blue and white striped wallpaper above the stove. Mama had her finger pointed out from her fist, her words hitting Daddy rapid fire. Blood dripped from his nose onto his work shirt while he looked up at her with the most pitiful expression I’d ever seen. I almost forgot how much I hated him and felt sorry for him.

Then, Mama was dabbing at his face, holding a bunched cloth, dipped in oil of catnip by the smell of it, to his nose. By morning there was just a faint stain where the blood had been, like bacon grease had sputtered up and absorbed into the wall. The apple-shaped bruise on his forehead, and blue-ringed halos under both eyes faded in a few weeks, but Daddy’s nose never looked right ever again. I was never prouder. Daddy slept in the shed next to the root cellar for two weeks and explained away his face as a run in with his stud bull. He never got sloppy drunk or called me a name again while Mama was alive.

I never met any of Daddy’s folk, but I always wondered if he wasn’t like his ancestor grandfather he told stories about when he was lit up after having a few drinks. Daddy’s great-great grandfather William ran away from the war raging in the South, and lived with the Indians years after it was over. He didn’t believe in fighting for coloreds. He married a Choctaw named Mary Godwin, who everyone called Mary Steps-Lightly on account of his terrible temper. They had one daughter and three sons, two of whom died when soldiers, after the great war to free the slaves, found a new enemy.

Mrs. Harris, the Catholic, who lives across from the church in a one-story red brick house with a small store to the left-side front of it, filled in the blanks Daddy left in his stories. She knows everything about everyone who has ever lived within the city limits, and that’s saying something, because Layton has at least five-hundred residents now. Everyone says Mrs. Harris was the best dancer the state had ever seen, but she’s old now and arthritis is slowly twisting her body into a shape that makes anything but lying flat in bed impossible.

Up until about a few years ago, Mrs. Harris had run the shop in front of her house, now her daughter-in-law Mrs. Anderson does. It is my job as part of the Merry Maids, to visit her every Monday and Thursday right after school to help her with whatever she needs done, which isn’t much other than to fold linens and dust a little. Mostly, what she wants to do is talk and for me to listen. I love her stories. Before long I took over all the other girls days to tend to Mrs. Harris, saying I had a deep and abiding need to do service for the sick and infirm.

Mrs. Harris has a cross with Jesus nailed to it hanging above the bedside table and I wonder if it is a sin for her to have a graven image that so closely reflects the pain her body causes her. Sometimes I rest my hand against my face next to my eyes to block Jesus out. I can’t stand him looking on while I wade into the sins and iniquities of my fellow man. Mrs. Harris tells me all about my Daddy’s family, and everybody else’s family as well, so that during Fast and Testimony meeting when everyone stands up and cries and says with shaky voices that they know with their whole heart and soul that this is the one true church, and how truly blessed they are to be God’s chosen people, bragging in reverent tones about all the selfless deeds they had done past and present, and how righteous their pioneer ancestors were, I have to work hard to keep the corners of my mouth down, even cover my mouth with my hand and cough to relieve the tension.

While I was brushing out her thin gray hair and twisting it into a soft coil at the back of her head, Mrs. Harris told me that she wasn’t gossiping, which is a sin, just educating the ignorant, and that, in fact, everything she tells me is common knowledge, written down in family histories my people pride themselves for, and is even recorded in a vast file, kept in the basement of a building right by the temple in Salt Lake City, by scores of dedicated volunteers keeping track of members past and present, and even people who are dead and had never heard of the Mormons. Mrs. Harris said that even so, she didn’t think it was a good idea to let Daddy know she was telling me about my great-great grandfather William Hertzog and his Indian bride, Mary Steps-Lightly.

Sometimes after I’ve reported what’s happening up front in the store and when I’m finished folding the towels and sheets and putting them away in the linen closet in the hallway next to her room, she’ll teach me songs her teacher, Miss Zipporah Ellison sang to her when she was a little girl sitting with all the other children in the little school house Mrs. Flint lives in now. Mrs. Harris says when she was a little girl she had long golden hair, and that she loved to run, light and carefree through her father’s fields. She’ll close her eyes and sing with such a wistful timbre in her voice, that it almost seems like she’s that golden little girl set free of the prison her body has become. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes too, and we’ll run hand in hand through her Daddy’s fields of sweet alfalfa.

Mrs. Harris never says too much or just plain changes the subject when I ask about my Mama’s family. She says that Grandpa Adams and his mother and younger sister came to Utah the same way her family had, on the way to California in search of fortune, and stayed on because he loved the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the fertile land as far as the eye could see, never mind what his mother and sister thought or wanted. She supposed he decided there was gold enough in the sunset reflecting on the great lake to the West. The Adams’ settled here, and even had a street named after them on account of being the only non-Mormons on that stretch of dusty road. They were Lutherans. It wasn’t until Grandpa Adams was won over by a dark-haired slip of a girl with eyes the color of mist, that he got the fervor for God’s true religion. In order to marry my Grandma Adams within the secret walls of the temple in Salt Lake City, he had to join God’s own people, renouncing tobacco, swearing, and spirits. Mrs. Harris said he did the best he could, considering.

When I told Mrs. Harris about my dreams and what the house told me about the man face down in the ditch, the torches, the horse with its bulging eyes, and the thrashing feet, her face went the color of old ash that has been in the bottom of a coal stove all winter long. Her eyes always looked like they were peering out from the bottom of a very deep well, but now they were glittering on the surface of her face. When she got control of her mouth, she said, Dear, it’s not good to put too much store in dreams or what you think you hear. And then she reached out with her hand that looked more a like twisted root and patted mine.

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