Lowlands

In Issue 68 by Patti Witten

Lowlands
Photo by MikeDotta on Shutterstock
Synopsis

It is late August in the steep gorges and vineyards of New York’s Finger Lakes region. Robert, Cynthia, and Leah are sober yet troubled, caught between what is real and imagined and the overlapping secrets and motives of trauma and addiction. During a night of drinking, Robert and Cynthia’s 18-year-old daughter Maylin hooks up with Phil, one of her father’s AA sponsees, and drowns when his truck is caught in a flash flood. Cynthia enlists Robert and Leah in a reckless quest for redemption through revenge. Cynthia is beset by incantatory, hyper-natural visions of Maylin, while Robert’s past catches up with him. In the climax, Cynthia confronts Maylin’s abuser. But when she lets him escape, someone else murders him. In the final scenes, Maylin speaks for herself, Leah retreats, and tangled threads loosen. Robert and Cynthia tentatively begin to heal and discover that the real search is for understanding and acceptance, however imperfect they may be.

Chapter Three: Cynthia

Cynthia had withdrawn, wrapped in a shroud of bedsheets, exhausted by weeping. In the darkened room, sounds were somehow louder — the rain, a car swishing by on the street, the faint barking of a neighbor’s dog. Water dripping from the eaves and mumbling in the downspout beside the open window. Six days since Maylin drowned. Tomorrow they would bury her.

She pulled the stale pillow over her head to block the voices from the other side of the bedroom door — Robert, her brother Dave and sister-in-law Linda. Under the pillow, her brain buzzed like an electrical transformer and her breathing roared, heavy as a horse lying flat out in the pasture, imitating death. Her heart tapped irregularly with the skipping pattern she had been born with, whispering its name: heart murmur.

The ringing in her ears flattened to a single note with a kind of weakness, as though something might have given way. The pillow was hot and she pushed it away angrily. She stood, pulled the bedroom door open and lurched into the bathroom. When she twisted the faucet handle, the sound of running water broke the spell and she drank from the spigot, turning her face to catch the cold water, letting it run across her cheek.

Robert’s shadow filled the bathroom door. Had she heard him or seen his shadow, first? Hearing was sight, smell was thirst, and touch was the taste of metal.

“You OK?” he asked. “Do you want anything?”

She stared at the drain, a mouth saying “oh.” Felt for the edge of the door with her left hand, pushed, and it closed with a sharp click. Water tongued the oh and slipped down to join the endless oceans of the world.

Meg came in the afternoon, sat on the edge of Cynthia’s bed, talking tough, reading her mind.

“Maylin is gone, but you don’t have to be. Why don’t you let Robert in, let him be with you? He’s hurting, too.”

Yes, Robert was suffering, but the smell of him, his fumbling, his voice were intolerable. Someone else would have to help him.

“Let him in,” said Meg.

“Please, stop. I can’t do this.”

“You have to, you must. Get up.”

She allowed the silence to play out until Meg sighed and mimicked the Terminator. “I’ll be back.” One of their old jokes.

Hollow sounds came from the living room. Robert, defensive and plodding. The TV. Dave and Linda. A craving for alcohol rose up, swift and surprisingly vivid.

Listen to yourself, she thought. Stop listening to yourself.

Then a different nagging smoked upward, a spark of the other kind of being overcome. Pressure at the base of her skull and dimming of her sight. The migraine and premonition she’d had on the day before Maylin drowned weren’t gone. Something was still coming.

Of course, she got up and dressed the next day. Endured the calling hours, sat or stood at the right times, inclined her torso and cheek when friends and family opened their arms.

On the way to the cemetery, she remembered Maylin as an infant — piglet toes, tiny seashell fingernails, fat creased legs, and flushed cheeks. As a toddler — dark curly hair, blue eyes, and a serious expression. As a girl — pink headband, gazelle legs, and bare feet. Wearing headphones and singing softly in the back seat, leaning to look at horses in a field. She saw Robert towering over baby Maylin, holding her hand as she staggered in the grass, telling her about animals, the sky, the stars. She saw Maylin learning to read, learning to draw, learning to lie. She remembered squeezing Maylin’s little fish of a hand until she said, “Ow, Mommy, too hard.” You could never trust her to hold tight. You could not hold on to her.

A mother’s hoard of mental images of her eighteen-year-old should be almost inexhaustible, but hers ended there. They slotted into view, slides in a projector carousel, a wooly darkness around each one, and the smell of dust burning on a hot bulb. The parade of memories looped while Maylin’s casket glided ahead of them in the hearse.

When the car stopped, Robert got out, spoke to someone, and after a few minutes opened her door, bringing the sound of tires on gravel, car doors closing, wind in the leaves. He led her to the folding chairs. She sat heavily and the chair legs sank into the wet earth. The white and gold casket was already there. A green baize rug covered the hole so that no one needed to look into the mouth of death.

Gnats and mosquitoes circled her hair and face and landed on her hands, her legs, even her shoes. From the rain, she thought. Couldn’t someone have warned them about the bugs? And just like that, Robert held out a plastic bottle of insect spray, making a gesture that said, do you want to or should I? She waved, you do it.

“Cover your eyes,” he murmured, and she obeyed, leaning forward with her face in her hands. And just like that, an older, grateful love for him rushed in with little Maylin, squeezing the trigger of a squirt gun, laughing and screaming as they chased each other around the yard.

Thank you, she said to herself, or maybe to God. Thank you. I had forgotten that.

Her sense of time was broken. She lost track of hours, even days. Time was a tomb where starved spiders hung in the corners from long, brittle legs. Then, without warning, time lurched awake like a drunk. Afraid of falling, she brushed her fingers on the wall or the counter as she moved, like an old woman.

It was Tuesday morning, very early, before dawn. Yes, that was right. The burial had been Saturday. Ten days since Maylin drowned. She sat in her chair in the small sitting area between the kitchen and the dining room. Under the table lamp beside her, a Chinese bowl decorated with a dragon held the condolence cards. Cards with bouquets in pale hues or Jesus in God’s spotlight, hands clasped in prayer. Landscape photos seemed to suggest the sun also rises and the world still abides. Our Thoughts Are With You During This Sad Time. Sincere Condolences To Your Family From Ours. Our Loved Ones Never Really Leave Us.

She fished out the card from Leah, or maybe the card fished for her, pulled her up like a trout from cold water. The card was made of thick, indigo, textured paper with a deckled edge layered over lightweight white linen. The white extended a bit past the blue, like a man’s cuffs from the sleeves of a suit jacket. So formal. Embossed on the front in small uppercase letters were the words “in sympathy.” Inside, in a familiar looping script, Leah had written, “Words fail. My heart breaks for you and for Maylin. Leah.”

It must have been hard for Leah to write this, to word it without using Robert’s name. She imagined her finding this beautiful card in the stationary store downtown that sold leather-bound journals and jeweled ballpoint pens. Leah had chosen it for her, knowing Cynthia would be the one to read it. A private message.

Message received.

Her head ached. She dropped the card in the bowl and slipped back into the cold water. Time took one of its lurching skips and the lamp guttered like a candle, the bowl of cards became a funerary offering, and Cynthia was the corpse laid out with useless essentials for the afterlife.

The cat jumped into her lap and said its name in a puff of fishy vapor aimed at her face. “All right, Mau,” she answered, looking up at the gray light in the tall windows. Robert was coming down the hall from their bedroom. He shuffled into view and passed her on the way to the kitchen. She watched as he lifted the kettle and set it on the blue and orange flame. Mau purred in her lap.

“I should answer some of these cards,” she said. “There’s one from Leah.”

Neither of them had mentioned her name all these years because, she thought, everything had been said. But they were in new territory now, and new things might be said.

He selected a mug from the cupboard and put it on the counter. The flame under the kettle rumbled.

“OK,” he said, sounding dubious.

As he opened the refrigerator and squinted in the bright light, he looked young. Vulnerable.

“Are you hungry?’ she asked, pushing the cat from her lap.

“No,” he said, swinging the door shut. “Not yet.”

Robert left for work and she faced another day with her daughter dead and drowned. She would start by making the bed. But in the hallway, she turned right instead of left, twisted the doorknob, and stepped into Maylin’s bedroom.

She had not opened the door since Officer Williams woke them ten days before. Her sister-in-law collected the dress and shoes that Cynthia wanted for the funeral home. But the room was just the way she remembered it, lumps of clothes on the floor, spilling from open drawers, pulled from the closet. The places she’d snooped for hidden drugs and cutting tools. The embroidered Guatemalan top and the black T-shirt were draped on the bed. Perhaps Maylin had modeled them before sneaking out while they slept across the hall. Except Cynthia had not been asleep. She had taken what would be her last look as Maylin was leaving.

Her heart murmured and her breath caught. What was she doing in here? Looking for the reason why. The dresser top was crowded with loose jewelry, hair products, and perfume bottles. There — a small, blue, wire-bound notebook. She turned it over in her hands. Was it a journal? Should she read it? Of course she would. Inside the cover, “Address Book” was printed in silver ink. She was disappointed and also relieved.

The book was a few years old, begun before everyone had cell phones, but most of the pages were blank. Girls’ first names in ink or faded pencil, no dates. Initials J, K, and L — Cynthia remembered those alphabetical boys — and a number scratched out under “F.” Below that, Freese, Mom & Dad. Their old home phone was also scratched out, and their cell numbers were written in pencil as though they might be temporary, subject to change. She looked for her brother, sister-in-law, and their son, Douglas, who had driven Maylin to the bar that night. She looked for Phil, who drove the truck that was swept off the road, who escaped while Maylin drowned. Who had not come to the calling hours or the burial and had not communicated with them.

She found P-Q-R but not Phil. On the opposite side, under M-N-O, a few words were scrawled in Maylin’s looping script.

Discouraged, she closed the address book and put it back on the dresser. But the words tugged at her. When she tore the page from the book, the spiral wire left a long row of tiny teeth along its edge. She left the room, and the door made the familiar closing click. She slipped the page inside her jewelry box and lapsed into inertia for the rest of the day.

On Tuesdays, Robert usually left work for the five-thirty meeting in town, so she ate supper alone and studied the page from the address book. On the M-N-O side, Maylin had written “Never.” Two lines below that, she had written “October 1998.” It was the kind of secretive, dramatic thing girls did, the sort of thing she had done herself. But what did it mean? Never forgive, never forget? Never mind, never again?

In October 1998, Maylin was eight years old. The beginning of the hard years — bedwetting, secret cutting, depression, defiance. They still lived in Ithaca, in a crowded neighborhood of working families and kids in cramped, two-story houses with tiny backyards. Their home had been a magnet for AA friends and sponsees, the door left unlocked in case someone needed her or Robert, day or night. Often, the house was thick with the voices and cigarette smoke of sober drunks and addicts in early sobriety. Until her husband and her closest friend betrayed her, ending the open-door policy at home and in her heart.

Had Maylin been bullied at school or in the neighborhood? It was awful to think of her child abused and alone while she was distracted by Robert and his women. Had Maylin sensed it? Is that what the words meant, or was it something worse? Was it her fault?

If Robert was capable of cheating, what else was he capable of?

She dragged a dining chair into the bedroom. Maybe there were more clues in the boxes of stuff in her closet. The sharp flaps of corrugated cardboard scraped her forearms as she leaned to reach inside one box, then another, turning items over in her hands.

Robert found her there an hour later. “What are you looking for?” His voice was loud.

She stood up. “Just looking, going through things. I should have waited for you.”

“Do you want to do this now? Is there a reason?”

“No,” she said, keeping it neutral. “I’m going to bed, anyway.”

He moved aside to let her pass. The light went out, the door clicked shut and he followed her into the kitchen. Mau was on the counter again, threading mugs of tea and the clutter of empty bowls and platters of food left by their friends. She pushed him off, took a glass from the cupboard, and ran the tap. The sound tickled her OCD and she counted one, two, three, four. She felt Robert watching as she carried her glass through the hallway and into their bedroom.

Never, October 1998. She had to know what those words meant. She had to know if they were connected to Robert, however unbearable the truth might be. The alternative was also unbearable — unending guilt and unanswered questions forever lost in the flood that took her daughter’s life.

She paced the empty hours between Saturday and Sunday, up and back between the kitchen and the hallway. Two weeks to the day since Maylin drowned. Robert had not come home, had not called.

There was a soft thump in the hall. She called the cat. His water bowl was empty, and she filled it at the sink, one, two, three, ashamed for neglecting him. Had Robert gone into Maylin’s room and shut Mau inside? She walked back into the hall and closed her hand around the doorknob.

“Mau?” she whispered, afraid. There was no sound except her breath. Even the crickets and katydids were inaudible here. She pushed the door open a crack, thinking of the night Maylin went out and never returned. It flashed in her mind that Robert might be passed out on Maylin’s bed, the stink of alcohol coming off him. She almost wished him drunk and humiliated, proof that he had only been a dry drunk for all these years of sobriety.

But it was only the cat. He clawed at the door and shot between her legs.

She sat in her chair in the dark, waiting. Mau watched her, his eyes shining like blank disks in the faint light from the windows. Her face tingled, and her body sank through the floor as a vision gripped her and Maylin’s voice filled her mind.

: From beneath the dirt under stones and flattened grass I hear folding chairs snick shut the grind of a rough engine and the pulse of crickets and rain : But the ground is no place to be and that is why God gave me this translucent casket veined blades that unfurl from my back as I emerge : Scythed legs crawl the rough grooved willow trunk to the crown where the sun glitters in the wind : My ribs buckle against tymbals stuttering into the ancient pattern : I am a signal of careless destiny louder than the clattering leaves rising to join the electric chorus carried across the forest and up to the zenith where God’s burning eye presides : Amphibians and insects rule the earth : The rain pulls them fully formed from sticky eggs and tunnels : You say katy-did and katy-didn’t but your path diverged in the tidal time before time when you were an idea of fishes : Willow leaves turn yellow and silver twisting down stem-first : Ripe apples drop like drum beats :

: But the ground is no place to be and that is why God made me an owl predatory deathly silent : The night is a diamond and I see-hear what moves: pond ice pinging and mice tunneling under the snow : My talons loose the rough sheltering pine boughs and I plunge through the snow : My voice covers the world : You mistake it for desire for mourning for a song but I have no cares : I am careless I speak for myself :

: But the earth is no place to be and that is why God made me the wind pushed and pulled by heat and the earth’s spin by gravity by oceans : I breathe into the earth’s ear send my tongue into seashells my fingers into forests brush my scent over deserts : I am the atmosphere that pushes clouds : I speak to flowers rain and rocks and I talk back to God :

: The sky is no place to be : I pierce the blue bubble into heaven’s blackness shoot past the battered moon and raging sun as all the gears and springs of every tiny clock inside these atoms dissemble into ever smaller bits and bits of bits fuse with the immense dusted all-and-endless : I am the echoing ignition of everything and nothing :

: No one speaks for me :

It was over. Cynthia’s body recomposed, arms and hands where they belonged, feet on the floor. What was that? A hallucination? Was it the consummation of every migraine and shivery overcoming she’d had since childhood? Had the something that was always coming finally arrived?

No. Saints, shamans, and drugged-up street people talked to themselves and had visions, not her. It was exhaustion and shock, not magic in her distant DNA. It was longing for Maylin to return somehow, even if the dirt of death was still on her.

But. But. If it was Maylin’s spirit, could it be a message about Never and October 1998?

Impulsively, she retrieved the little blue book from Maylin’s room and wrote out the vision so she would not forget. She wrote quickly, detouring around names and numbers until it was all there. Then she put the book back on Maylin’s dresser and returned to bed, exhausted and alone.

She wanted to tell Robert. But how could she even talk about it?

Almost as soon as she closed her eyes, she heard his truck pull into the driveway. The entry door opened and closed, and his shoes knocked against the wall as he kicked them off. His keys clattered on the table by the inner door, and he thumped down the hallway past the bedrooms. The bathroom light glowed behind the bedroom door, and she heard the water running. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

He was coming. She tossed the sheet from legs, levered herself to his side, swung her feet to the floor, and switched on the lamp. He brought the scent of soap and toothpaste into the bedroom and she wondered if his now clean face had just been buried between another woman’s thighs.

“Where were you?”

 “I went there, to the place. Where it happened.”

They stared at each other, she on the bed and he by the door.

“Before that, I went to the five-thirty meeting. Then I went to the hospital, and I saw Phil. It was...sad. I was driving home, and I almost, almost hit a deer. Then I went to the bowling alley, sat in the bar. I thought about drinking.” He winced. “At closing time, I drove to the place. I wanted to see it. It was stupid.”

He spoke without his customary false starts and looked directly into her eyes. His eyes were red and swollen. Her heart slowed as she took in his posture, his downturned mouth that she now believed had not been on another woman’s that night. They breathed together.

Maybe he hadn’t done a terrible thing to Maylin. But what about the clue and the vision? Now she was of two minds. Old mind, new mind.

Robert pulled his wallet from a back pocket, dropped it on the dresser, unbuckled his belt, and hooked his jeans over her scarf on the back of the door. Her old mind complained that the hook was hers, not his. He sat beside her. They had not sat together like this since the burial. Her new mind was curious, took his hand, and his warmth spread through her fingers.

“I wanted to punish Phil,” he said. “I wanted to kill him. A few days ago, I even went to the hospital to do it, but I didn’t go in. Then today — yesterday, I guess — something happened. During the meeting, something in my mind kind of popped. An epiphany, maybe.” He paused and gave her a quick look. “I wanted to tell you about it. I was driving home to tell you, but then the deer jumped out.” He rubbed his face with his free hand, stubble scraping against callouses.

“OK.” She held still, looking at their clasped hands, holding his lightly in case he wanted to let go. She knew the feeling he talked about because tonight she’d had a vision and wanted to tell him. Or kill him.

Robert shook his head. “Phil is messed up, so broken. Then the deer.” He stole another look at her. “I thought about it, but didn’t drink. I just sat in the bowling alley, watching people, listening to the music and the pins getting hit. Then I drove out to the place. I couldn’t see much. Those orange barrels where the road washed out, caution tape blowing around, not even tied to anything. Gravel, mud. An opening in the trees.” He made an arc in the air with his free hand.

Carefully, she asked, “Did you feel her?”

He shifted to look at her, blue-blue eyes fully open. “No. No, I didn’t.”

“I saw her,” she whispered.

“Saw her?”

“Tonight. It was a vision, like a dream but I was awake. I can’t explain it. It was...animalistic, strange.” Robert’s grip began to feel tight and hot. What did he think of her?

“First, she was a cicada. Then an owl. Or the wind, or something. That sounds crazy.”

“Did she say anything?”

Old mind wanted to shock him. “She said, ‘no one speaks for me,’” and let go of his hand. “You should try to sleep. We’ll talk some more tomorrow.”

Soon he was snoring. Through the open window she could hear the chime of night crickets and the earliest birds chirping. She wished they could mourn together, wished she could trust him and tell him about the clue.

She needed someone to confide in, to enlist in solving Maylin’s mystery. Someone who wouldn’t talk, who was tough enough to handle whatever they discovered. Someone who knew her and Robert, who knew Maylin and the private story of their family.

Leah. Her old enemy, her one-time true friend who had betrayed her.

She would find out the truth even if it killed her — or she killed someone else.

About the Author

Patti Witten

Patti Witten is a former staff writer at Cornell University, also known as an award-winning singer and songwriter, graphic artist, and book illustrator. She has a B.A. in American History from Ithaca College, a cat named Mena, and an Airbnb in the country near Ithaca, New York.