excerpt from the growing sky
This is an excerpt from the first short story in an upcoming collection of fiction, The Growing Sky, by Prentiss Douthit. The ten short stories, each with an accompanying painting, are available for preorder through December 31.
Bill’s wife died in their bedroom on a Saturday morning. She had grown weaker throughout the night until, just as the sun was rising over the longleaf pines, her lungs gave up their fight against the weight of the air in the room. Bill opened a window, sat by the bed, and put his forehead on the back of her hand while she slipped away. Two hours later he stood back as nice men in black suits did the things they do to take her body to the place where they take bodies. He held the front door for them and watched as they put what was left in the long car and drove away.
Bill then went to the kitchen and stood while he waited to know what to do next.
The green kitchen clock hanging over the sink ticked two hundred times before he walked out the back door. He went down the steps of the porch without waking the cat. He walked towards the shed past the blooming hibiscus and the flicking tail of a towhee.
The shed was a small structure in the very back of the yard. It had board and batten siding and was painted the color of wood smoke. Squared and centered with the back door of the house, it stood guard over the garden but stayed tucked into the woods, part hidden, part sentinel. There was a simple little roof over the front door that kept the threshold dry, two small windows on either side, and a tin roof Bill had put on by himself forty-three years earlier.
He turned the squeaky knob and went inside. Again, he stood and waited.
When he heard the wind slide down the roof, Bill took a little baby food jar full of nails and screws from a shelf over the workbench. He poured them out and rested his palm on the small pile while he breathed in dust and the smell of metal. He spread them all out to better see what did and didn’t belong. One by one he separated nails from screws and collected any piece that was rusted or bent and sat them aside.
There was an empty orange plastic bucket under the bench. Bill took it out and swept the rejected hardware into it. They landed with a hollow rain. He put the good nails back in the jar, put the metal lid back on, and found a different container for the screws.
Three shelves held rows and stacks of old coffee cans, jars, and little plastic bins. Bill worked his way down the line sorting, discarding, and reorganizing.
The orange bucket filled half way.
He then turned to a metal cabinet, opened the warped doors, and found a whole new collection of hardware and tools. Bill rested his fingertips on the middle shelf as if about to play the piano. He waited until the metal warmed under his touch. Then he took out a set of socket wrenches. On the bench, he opened the lid and looked at the shiny wonders. He removed the three largest pieces and put them in the front pocket of his khaki pants. He closed the lid and returned the case to the cabinet.
Bill went through two of the five shelves. As he progressed, he would sometimes get stuck holding the tools in his bare hands while staring at nothing. His hands became black and dirty. His pants and blue button down shirt stained. His eyes dried out under eyelashes coated with a fine layer of rust, like pollen on the hind legs of a honeybee.
The orange bucket was filled almost to the rim. Bill lifted it onto a stool. He wanted to dig his hands into the hold, but it was too dense. Immovable. Impenetrable. So he rested his hands on top. He pushed his wrinkled palms and knobby fingers against the sharp points and threaded lines.
Then, one by one, he skimmed the top layer of hardware from the bucket and filled the deep front pockets of his dirty pants.
In Washington state, there is a bird called the Pacific Wren. During mating season, he sings vigorously until a female enters his territory. When she does, he flies around showing her several nests he’s made until she chooses which one they’ll inhabit.
In New Zealand there is a girl named Ella, who, when her parents are out or distracted, will sneak into her mother’s closet to take a long, blue scarf. It smells like green tea. Ella likes to tie the short end of the scarf around her neck and go to the very back of their yard where there are no trees. She will run from one side of the yard to the other. Back and forth the girl giggles and leaps while the blue scarf lifts and flaps behind her.
On the southern tip of India, near the strip of land that reaches for Sri Lanka, there is a man whose child is very sick. The doctor has told him it is very grave. The man leaves his home to let the walls echo his family’s cries without him. He goes to a nearby temple and kneels in front of a murti draped in flowers. He pauses and takes a breath. He sweeps his arms out, raises them overhead, and brings his hands together with the prayers of every beat of his heart.
Bill stood at the door of the shed. He looked up at the house. He was thirsty. It was time to go back. He tightened his belt, licked the taste of metal from his lips, and stepped into the yard.
The pea gravel path was a straight shot. Closest to the shed, it was bordered by a wild and wayward collection of flowering shrubs. Beyond this, there were two long beds of blooming perennials. These had been curated for years to fine tune a year-round show of blooms and color.
Halfway to the house, the garden opened to a large terrace edged with low boxwoods. There were stretches of lawn on either side. Bill stood in the middle and leaned his hip against an iron table. The sky was clear and wide.
He heard a small crunch of leaves behind him. He turned and saw his wife sitting on a three-legged stool pulling weeds around a stand of rose campion. Bill watched as she worked her way front to back, discarding the weeds in a small pail. Then she took her trowel and buried something in the dirt. The breeze swept her hair in the same rhythm it blew through the tall masses of black-eyed Susan behind her.
He turned away. He stood straight and looked back towards the house. Bill took two small steps but hesitated. The cat on the porch stretched and stared at him.
He steadied himself and looked over his shoulder to see his wife was gone.
The ticking of the kitchen clock had told him, “Find the metal and put your hands on it. Let it kiss your skin and seep into your bloodstream. You will be lost without it.” And now he understood why. As he stood in the middle of their back yard, he felt the winds stir. He felt the storm build as it dove off the roof and took aim. It wrapped around his legs and grabbed him in the pits of his arms.
When Bill’s wife left that morning, she took most of him with her. She didn’t mean to. It just happened. The way a setting sun takes the day.
And now Bill was hollow. He was nothing more than a shell, just enough of a man to hang a blue shirt on. Just enough to barely hold up a pair of khaki pants.
And now he was no match for the winds in the middle of their yard.
Maybe if the breeze had stayed the simple breeze of a Saturday, he would stand a chance. But it didn’t. It was now too much. Because somewhere far away, a man had brought his hands together in prayer and stirred a tempest. Which traveled east until it met the rise and fall of a little girl’s cape. And then together, they blew across the wide ocean until they joined the breath of a wren’s tail as he showed his mate their options for living.
Bill touched his hands to the stain of metal on his shirt. He licked his fingers of the taste and wiped the rust from his eyelashes and licked some more. He lifted the bulk of his stuffed pockets so he could squat. Bill fell back on his bottom and pulled his knees in as much as he could. He let the winds swirl around him, exhausting half a world’s momentum before it swept through the black-eyed Susans and went up over the tops of the longleaf pines.