Green Hills Literary Lantern




Salve for Black Hands



She sat at the table skinning an orange. Her fingers were spiders on it. She was quiet.

Then she said yes, she would. Her white sweater was to the midriff. She ate into the orange. Her eyes licked up like candlelight. I love you, she said. Why else would you say yes.  He went and put his mouth on her.

That day he met a red-faced man called Blake. Handshake was as smacking the hide of a horse.

“You been with the company long,” said Blake.

“Eight years,” said Charlie.

“Like it that much.”

“Been since I was a kid.”

“Like North Dakota.”

“Never left but for South Dakota. When I was young I lived in Minnesota but don’t remember it.”

“I come from Texas. People are friendlier there.”

“People warm here.”

“Yeah. You got a woman.”

Charlie nodded.

“You,” he said.

“A couple. One’s well loved here.”

“What’s she called.”

Blake leaned back and crossed his legs. Blonde hairs coated them as wheat fields. Except on one, where skin on a boiled scar lay smooth and flat. He looked clear-eyed to the distance.

“Jane Browning,” he said.

“Don’t know her.”

Blake stayed leaned back and did a good breath. In the air was the smell of stale electric heat and pine needles.

He ran a hand over his jaw. His eyes were lake green.

“You’ll,” said Blake. “We gon drink tonight.”

He rocked his body forward.

“I got to ask Margaret,” said Charlie.

The phone rang.

“Don’t be rude,” said Blake.

Charlie put a hand on it.

“I should though,” he said. He answered the phone.

“Y’owe me one,” said Blake. He rose. Sun made black stripes on his face where window blinds were. “To welcome me.”

“Sitka Service,” said Charlie.

Blake walked out. The door shook bells when it opened and again when it closed. He stood near smoking a cigarette.

Charlie put gear into a truck and drove where the call came from. He worked the day with a man called Shane, trimming a tree that brushed on a power line. They didn’t talk much during.

Charlie thought of Margaret. They’d been together since they were young. So long that in his mind it was hard to pull them apart, for to view individually. He saw her thin skin and widow’s peak, long nose at center of face. Sometimes he thought about others who had loved her. Touched her like he did. It helped him to see her clear, when he had looked so much he was blind to see her at all.

When Shane and Charlie finished, they smoked under the tree. The sky was ripe with starlight.

“Margaret and I are gettin’ married,” said Charlie.

Shane’s mouth peeled a cloud of smoke.

“You ask her.”

“She been askin’. You know.”

“I’d never. Way I see it, got enough troubles. Don’t need to chain myself to someone else’s.”

“Helps to have two carryin’.”

“What if you grow to unlove her.”

“You can have more than one in a life.”

The neighboring house went dark by window. They watched as if they had something against it. At the last, a girl looked out. She doused the light and merged with blue.

“Feel like drinking some,” said Charlie.

“Not tonight,” said Shane.

He smoothed his ponytail. Flicked a cigarette toward the ground and rubbed it out.

Charlie and Margaret went to meet Blake downtown. Margaret’s hair floated over her like it were underwater. He grew hard looking at where it met her breasts. He told her that rough in her ear and she laughed. She grabbed him and bit at her lips. Eyes dark and far off.

The bar was empty but for Blake situated in the back corner by the bathroom. He was spread out, taking two seats.

“Good to see yuh,” he said.

Eyes twinkled with alcohol.

A red haired woman came from the bathroom. Walked near with arch column legs. Lips stung full. Put an arm through Blake’s and settled to a rosy position that wanted touching.

The next day Blake didn’t show for work. A mad call came about the tree Shane and Charlie had done.

“We did right,” said Charlie.

“Go back and down it again. Make them satisfied,” said his boss.

Charlie drove back to the tree. Fog slid the road under. He walked the shoulder until he reached the yard where the tree was. When he reached it, he saw the branch was against the line.

“What the fuck,” he said. He looked to other trees.

He worked alone and cut the branch back. When the sun was gone there was no seeing. White fog nested hills. He reached in front and didn’t see his hand the air was so swollen with it. He walked to his car, along the shoulder.

When he got home, Margaret was there, naked from the waist down, sleeping. Charlie undressed above her. He went to the kitchen and sliced bread. He smoothed it with cream cheese and ate with his hands. The light in the kitchen was too bright. He took the bread and water to the living room and sat on the couch.

At work the next day, his boss was waiting.

He took his coat off. Went to the kitchen, poured coffee, took it to where Ben was sitting and stood there and looked down at him.

“You care about your work anymore,” said Ben.

“I do.”

“Did you go to the site yesterday.”

“You mean the tree’s not well cut.”

“Think it’s a joke.”

Charlie set the cup down.          

“We cut it right the first time. Yesterday I downed it again three feet.”

“Don’t come back here ‘til it’s done.”

He stood and slammed the chair back to its place. Charlie finished the coffee and didn’t rush. He breathed above it. Steam coated his upper mouth hairs. In his mind were pine trees with tops invisible, lost in great light.

During days the next week he cut the tree, and nights it grew back. Ben stood rageful before it. Shane drove impaired to the site and put a necktie on it.

He stood back and looked at it. His words were sloppy cherries. Spit red at ground.

Blake showed for work after a few days, beat in face. Around one nostril was a yolk yellow ring and then a circle of green after. He went to the kitchen for ice. His lower back clenched as he pulled it.

“You think you still got a job,” said Ben.

Blake cracked his back.

“It’s alright, boss,” he said.

“You want me on my tree,” said Charlie.

“Would be better off moving the line,” said Ben.

“We could take it down.”

“Talk to the owners.”

Charlie drove to the patch and parked and walked to the tree.

A young girl was there, playing with the necktie. She lifted and let it fall to the trunk. She stared so close she was cross-eyed. Her dress was light blue and collared. She was the color of caramel, with no shoes on. When she heard Charlie, she galloped toward the home. He walked to the door and it swung open and a man stood there in a suit. He was clean and godly sharp. He had creamy black skin and square teeth.

“Is Lou causin’ trouble,” he said. The sky was one livid shade of blue all over. He pulled his daughter from her hiding place behind him.

She took a round tin from her pocket. It was navy painted with red roses. ‘Smith’s Salve’ was wrote on it in white letters. She rubbed the pink on her chin and lips.

“This here’s for my ailments,” she said. Then, “Why’d you put a tie on the tree.”

“Another did,” he said.

She backed up slow behind the man. Then pried his legs apart and stared at Charlie.

In the house were clothes hung on light switches, buoys for ocean waters, wood stringed instruments, and a saggy beagle with stoned red eyes whose ears twitched whenever there was noise.

“I’m to see about your tree,” said Charlie.

“What about it,” said the man.

“We want to take it down. Could offer you some money.”

“Lou,” said the man. He did an upward whistle and swigged his thumb back. Lou turned her mouth to a circle, slumped. Then sprinted down the hall and planted on the beagle, arms thinned and vertical.

“Wife’s under it,” said the man.

Charlie turned and looked at the tree. He thought to himself he should take off the tie.

“Sorry,” said Charlie.

“Wasn’t a way of knowing,” said the man.

“I’ll get back to it then.”

Charlie didn’t look at the man. He heard the tuck of a door shutting.

There was a sick wind at his back. Whining. It rose off a lake near the end of property. Fields between the house and lake were dead or in the process: yellowed, gaunt. Birds picked at old crop. The wind was undeterred when it came. There were no homes or hills. It could tongue and wash without pause.

When Charlie finished the tree, he called on Blake.

“What you and Jane up to,” he said.

“You wanna drink,” said Blake.


“Come to Jane’s. 551 Broadner. Park near.”

“Sounds good.”

Jane’s home was a shack. He pushed in the bell but it was noiseless. He knocked on the wood door. Wind put small rocks at him. He waited, but no one came. He knocked again.

Dust dipped into the wet of his eyes. The door opened. Jane’s hair leaked as fire down her cheeks. She had a slip on. Eyes were unseeing.

“Blake invited me,” said Charlie.

“He ain’t here,” she said.

“I talked to him not ten minutes ago.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“He said to come.”

She moved her head to side.

“You can come in if you want,” she said.

She touched him at the waist.

“I’m with a woman,” he said.

Light was in the kitchen through a window. He thought to himself, what could be shining bright enough this late to make such a light. Next to the window was a plant pregnant with red fruit.

Jane closed her eyes at him and then the door.

He drove to his house and past it. He saw light in kitchen. He thought Margaret was asleep, not waiting. He thought about her ass and the young hairs that started on her thighs.

He found himself at the tree. He wanted to touch it. To feel it under him: animal and resistant. He looked to the fields.

He drove home and found Margaret and ran his palm over the hills of her. Kept touching until she came awake.

“You keep sleeping without me,” he said.

“Your hair needs trimming,” she said.

She brought her mouth to his and kissed it wet. Eyes as cracked eggs. As eyes are at nights.

Blake was at work before Charlie the next day, eating toast. Red-socked feet on the desk, and he rubbed them on each other.

Ben sat with Blake, talking. He spoke strong. Blake looked down from him. Ben turned and looked at Charlie.

“Tonight you’ll stay at the tree,” he said.

“You seen it we aren’t doing wrong,” said Charlie.

“I don’t know what I’ve seen,” said Ben.

Blake and Charlie drove to the site.

“What happened last night,” said Charlie.

“Got into it,” said Blake.

“You should have said not to come.”

“Should have.”

“What over.”

“Other woman.”

“You made it seem she wouldn’t care about that kind of thing.”

“What do I know about it.”

They got to the site and cut at the tree. Lou sat near, sticking fingers in the beagle’s mouth, flapping his lips. The man came.

“We been told to stay overnight,” said Blake.

“What reason,” said the man.

“You ought to know,” said Blake. “This tree won’t be civilized.”          

“You won’t be able to stay inside,” said the man.

“It’s alright,” said Charlie.

“Why not,” said Blake. “We doin’ you a service.”

“I don’t find it a service that you come in here and disrespect me,” said the man.

Blake narrowed his eyes as the man receded. When he was at a distance, Charlie told about the wife under them. Blake drained green eyes and fiddled with a branch.

“I didn’t mean it rude,” he said. “I don’t like people thinking unkind on me.”

They worked for a time. The air was potent with blackberries cooking.

“Shit,” said Blake.

“You can do it right,” said Charlie.

When they were done, sun went from the sky but there was color left in it. Navy with red cuts.

Blake went down from the tree. Stretched himself. Charlie stayed up. He watched Blake and the man from above. They looked small. They were black figures light moved around. Defined by absences. Light was everywhere but them. There were those up high: red wounds and bathwater blues. Those in houses, wood fires that held in them the blood of animals. Charlie thought sometimes it looked like men had light in them, pushing up from they eyes as if from a deep well. But it was just another way light moved around men. Evading in some great trick.

Charlie climbed down and went to the porch. Blake was drinking of a flask, and the man moved in the house through a lighted hallway. Inside were photos of a brown woman with black moss hair. She was holding a baby in a red blanket. Yellow flowers tucked in her blouse and on her head. In another of the same day, the man was there. Looked pathetic happy. Mouth bleating like a lamb.

“How’s it,” said Charlie.

Blake handed and he drank. It sank with heat. The man returned with an amber bottle. The liquid hardly moved it was so thick.

Night was warm, and the house positioned so wind couldn’t reach. Inside was the smell of cooked fruit.

“What you do,” said Blake.

“Not much now,” said the man. “Used to preach.”

“Got tired of God on the tongue,” said Blake.

“I wouldn’t tire of that,” said the man.

“Come by a new profession,” said Charlie.

“I just. I didn’t feel him no more,” said the man.

“Can’t he be summoned,” said Charlie.

“I tried summoning once. Got me a scar about it,” said Blake.

“I started thinking God was like a fish livin’ in us. Each one of us got a little fish God in him. Needs feedin’ and cleanin,’ changin’ of waters. I got careless with mine. Tested him even. Turned his water black just to see if he could keep breathin’. And he couldn’t,” said the man.

Blake eased a leg out from under him, eager, and held it up.

“See that scar,” he said.

He pointed to a route. Flesh at the center was pink.

“Looks like a state don’t it,” said Blake.

“I don’t know,” said the man.

“Mississippi,” said Charlie.

Blake nodded. His eyes looked between the men.

“It’s from above,” he said.

“How’s that,” said the man.

“When I was twenty-nine I lived in Mississippi. Lost trust in women first and then everyone. Started holin’ myself off. Didn’t see a single person for weeks. Then couldn’t. One night I was alone. I said, God if you there, do somethin’ serious. Thought it clear. Got nervous and drank too much, passed out. When I woke the room was on fire. Came with nothin’ but this scar. In the shape I was that night. I knew then I wasn’t alone passin’ time but maybe that it were some sort of test.”

“Sounds like luck to me,” said the man.

“You can take it as you want,” said Blake.

Lou came to the porch. Said she wanted to be tucked. The man stood and leaned and walked past the corner.

“I haven’t called Margaret,” said Charlie.

“Have her over,” said Blake.

Charlie walked from the house and called. Told her about staying. Said she could bring scissors and cut his hairs. 

When she arrived, the men were full drunk. Man of the house had an ancestral soldier’s coat on, blue as a whale. He was shaking his arms rabid in it. Blake had his shirt off. Stomach was a drum glinting red from flame.

Charlie was dancing. Clicking elbows together in a hop.

The man took Margaret up as she hit the ground. His arms were large on her and still enough to carry. They looked as if they were on ice.  Margaret put her face on his collar where he smelled of cinnamon. Lou was at the attic window, face on glass.

Margaret sat Charlie on the stairs. Put her legs around from behind. Got a cooking bowl from the kitchen and put it on his head. Cut his hair around the bowl in a flat line. She had a cotton dress on his shoulders, which collected red hairs cut off.

After, Charlie took the dress and pinned it to the tree. He took a branch and staked it. He attached the dress and branch, and slept on the dirt, beneath it as a tent.

When they woke, the tree was new. Charlie rose to wet in his ear. The tongue of the beagle slurped there, easy. Red eyes unmoved. Lou was next to him, with scare in her face. Charlie sat up and found Blake and the man on the porch, without sleep. The sun above the field peeked out as a red child. Yellow of it drooled as butter on Margaret’s nose.

“What you gon’ do about that tree,” said Lou.

“Move the line I think,” said Charlie.

“Some trees just go wild like that I guess.”

“Never come across one like it.”          

“Some don’t go tamed. Like dogs.”          

“Suppose so.”

“Only a tree yuh can’t set loose.”

Charlie walked to the house and Lou followed.

“Come here,” Blake called to Lou.

“Nope,” she said.

“I’m your elder. You shouldn’t talk rough like that,” said Blake.

“You nervous she gon’ find somethin’ true to say,” said the man.

“She ain’t know me from a stranger,” said Blake.

“She got no reverence for strangers. Makes her more likely to tell truths,” said the man.      

Charlie drove Lou for breakfast. She was quiet the way over. They ordered at the counter and sat near a window.

“Is it findin’ a penny that gets you luck or do you got to hold it,” she said.

“I don’t know.”

She pointed at the window. On the ledge was a penny face first. Charlie put his arms tall.

“What you think,” he said.

“Longest arms I ever seen.”

“I got you that penny.”

He stood and pushed the window open. Lou stared, intent on the coin. He thought her eyes were so black they could look at sun an inch away and not burn up.

He put his torso to the frame and stretched like he was one tendon running unbroken. He felt his back crack. Lou was near.

“Keep back from the ledge,” he said.

He kept reaching for the penny. If it were God or luck, or if it were some movement in wind that set fire to Blake’s room. Either way it was wanted.





Maggie Nicholson has written for WAMC, NPR, ABC News, WTEN, The West Seattle Herald, Southern Georgia University's 'Clapboard House,' and is currently working on a documentary.