E.D. Watson


Abelard and Heloise by Harry Morley

The Bible salesman came in late May after the rain had stopped too soon and the corn died. The girl opened the door and nodded a greeting. Her face was like a pan of biscuits but her eyes were the sly, watchful eyes of someone who’d waited a long time for something to happen. Her name was Myra but no one ever called her by it.

The salesman’s car made ticking noises at his back. “In these hard times,” he began, “there’s no consolation like God’s Word.” He showed her a Bible worth four dollars. Its cover was brown and crazed all over like parched earth. She reached out and stroked it once, lightly, before tucking it into her apron.

“My pa’s in the field and my ma is took to bed. Come back after dark,” she said. “I’ll pay you then.”

“Listen, Miss,” the man said, but she’d already faded into the shadows behind the screen door.

Through the brittle lace in the front window, she watched him walk to his car and then stop like he’d forgotten what to do. She expected he’d turn and come back to the door, but he got into his car and drove away. From the other room, her mother called.

“Who was that?” she asked, from beneath a damp rag.

“Some lost man. Looking for St. Joe.”

“St. Joe’s a hundred miles from here,” her mother said.

“I told him.”

She’d been born late. Her parents were already old. There were hollows in the rag over her mother’s eyes and mouth, like a shroud.

It would have been easy to take four dollars from the knotted handkerchief in her mother’s drawer, where eleven one-dollar bills were wadded together like withered cabbage.  Myra supposed the money was for when her parents died. When that happened, she expected she’d have to marry, but couldn’t figure who. She’d quit school last year and there was nobody for miles.

Supper was biscuits spread with lard. Her mother didn’t come to the table. Her father read the almanac. She imagined asking him for the money. A quarter for each year of my life, she would say. The father ate four biscuits and she ate two. The rest they saved for breakfast.

After supper she washed herself from the pump behind the house. Dry, her hair was the color of everything else: the dead corn’s leaves, the window’s lace, the almanac’s yellowed pages. But wet, her hair turned the color of meat gravy. Of polished wood. The color of the Bible.

In the morning, Myra realized the Bible man had not returned. It didn’t matter; four dollars was a lot of money. He’d be back.

While she did her chores, she kept her eyes on the horizon. Each time she glimpsed the distant plume of dust raised by her father’s tractor, her heart went sideways in her chest. She had to remind herself several times that the road lay in the opposite direction.

The man did not come that night, nor the next. Each morning filled her with increasing wonder. Perhaps he’d meant the Bible as a gift—or a message. It was a foolish idea, but the ad sheets pasted inside the outhouse promised love at first sight with a squirt of perfume or certain undergarments. Of course she had neither, but the ads were old and maybe men no longer required such things. Or he was different, a man of God.

The longer he stayed away, the more she expected him. But she also thought he might never return, that he’d simply drifted across her sky and disappeared like a shred of cloud that failed to rain. She read the Bible in seven days. Whoever he was, she owed him that at least. After she finished it, she wrote her name on the inside cover and felt that something had been fixed.

That night, she lay in bed listening to the dry rasp of the corn, half-dreaming that someone was in the fields, searching for her. When she heard an engine’s far-off whine, she slipped outside and wet her hair.

The driver was going slow, looking for the turn. When he saw her standing at the edge of the road, he stamped on the brakes, raising a thick cloud of dust. When it cleared, she saw the moon made the brim of his hat shine like a halo.

“I been expecting you,” she said.

She got in beside him. It was her first time in a car and her bare feet were dirty. She pointed out the track to the barn and he drove without using his headlights.

Inside the barn she said, “I haven’t got four dollars but I’m a virgin.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, stepping toward her. Because she’d read the Bible, she knew this was always the first thing angels said, so she wasn’t scared, not much. The man wore a cologne that filled up her nose and then her whole head. He said it was only Florida water. She pictured Florida then: a place of relentless greens and blues and deep reds, the most beautiful place. She asked if he’d ever been; he said sure, lots of times. Then they didn’t talk anymore and the color filled her all the way, down to her soles.

At dawn her father woke her by tightening the belt on his tractor. He didn’t know she was in the barn. The other man was gone. When she stood, her father dropped his wrench and gaped at her. She held her bare arms into the slats of lavender light and turned them over, marveling. She was naked and her hair was still damp.

“Verily I say unto you,” she said, tasting the richness of those words, like coins upon her tongue.

Her father shook his head, trying to understand.

“It rained last night,” she said, and within her, a cell divided like a pair of wings.


About the writer:
E.D. Watson’s work has been published by Narrative, [PANK], and others.

Image: Abelard and Heloise by Harry Morley (1881-1943). Oil on panel. No size specified. 1926. Public domain.