Revelation 21:4
fiction by Rachael Marie Walker

Pa’s Parkinson’s finally killed him in the winter, which he would’ve hated. He kept talking about one more summer. What he really wanted, what he prayed for when he watched televangelists all afternoon, was one more summer, but in his body before it was ruined by Parkinson’s. One last summer waterskiing barefoot on the lakes dotting the i’s of western Virginia, one last summer drinking PBRs, sitting in Adirondack chairs, sucking on peach pits and telling me and my twin brother Aiden that he’d love a little great-grandbaby to bounce on his knee. It was the winter my tits started to sag, the winter Aiden stopped lying about fucking Ruth, the barely-legal waitress who worked at the restaurant attached to the family museum. Aiden and I were the first in our family to not have kids before we turned twenty, so we grew up surrounded by parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, who as we grew, left and died and grew silent. Our great-great-grandmother died when I was two months old. Daddy keeps a picture of her holding me on the piano no one ever plays. He’s so proud of that picture. Four generations, he says. Four generations of Donahues. 

Aiden and I planned the funeral, talked to the pastor, stood with our hands out at the receiving line. Daddy was last in line, his sisters on either side of him, their hands on his shoulders, and stared directly at his shoes—Pa’s shoes—the whole time. Daddy was never one to talk about his feelings, but he talked so little that winter that I knew if he started, he’d start pouring out every heartbreak and sadness and he couldn’t take that, so he just sat silent at the dinner table and sat silent at the funeral parlor and sat silent every day as he took tickets at the museum. It was our slow season, when the mountains slicked with ice and the evergreens shook off snow from their bangs and eyelashes. I walked in, opened the gift shop, and watched Daddy clean the plaques of Bible quotes every morning until they shone. He dusted off every LEGO of the Noah’s Ark displays, the dinosaurs last in line, paired up together. A dinosaur creationist museum with Bible plaques and dioramas and Billy Graham tapes in all the VCRs is never a huge tourist attraction, but without the traffic from nearby Luray Caverns, we spent most of the winter days cleaning already spotless corners of the museum. I kicked my feet up on the gift shop counter, made sure all the creationist off-brand LEGO sets were stocked, un-wrinkled the t-shirts that read PREPARE TO BELIEVE with a T-Rex skeleton on the front. These were Pa’s idea, and we’ve never sold out in the ten years since he bought fifty boxes of them in every size—these’ll sell like hot cakes, Bridget, he said, and winked that blue-eye wink he never quite got back after Parkinson’s got its fingers into his face—and of course they didn’t. We all wore them around the house. Each of us came to get coffee in the morning with PREPARE TO BELIEVE t-shirts hanging around our mid-thighs, sweaty with sleep.  

I had a hard time sleeping after Pa died. He had a gravity to him. When he was well, I could hear the unique rhythm of his footsteps on the tile of the museum’s floor from the other side, where I was tucked into the gift shop. Without that gravity and centrifugal force, we all felt loose. The rhythm of his footsteps, as he grew sicker and sicker, became instead a rhythm of Medicaid pills, of Daddy begging Pa to use his wheelchair, Pa instead, stubbornly, walking anyway, falling in the bathroom, falling in the kitchen. After Parkinson’s had settled into his bones and ligaments, he couldn’t come into the museum anymore. I’d come into his bedroom after work, give him his medicine, sit in the rocking chair that used to live in the nursery Aiden and I shared while Pa tried to sit up in bed. He’d stroke my hair the same way he did when Aiden and I were kids, when he’d pull both of us into his lap and tell us jokes. Instead, I told him about the museum, what a visitor said, the way a child gasped with joy at seeing the pterodactyls wing-stretched above their heads. He loved when kids came into the museum. He kept a jar of lollipops under the desk, just for them, and when they walked away biting hard on the stick, he’d smile at me and Aiden. 

When he built this museum, after a payout from the mining company–something intentionally kept unclear but was likely about exposure to toxins and known dangers not communicated to the miners–he spent full days and nights here. Pa painted the building, front to back. The front hall, with the ticket desk and Bible story dioramas, a pale blue, the gray tiles, easy to clean, installed by Pa and Daddy themselves. Dinosaurs painted on the walls by Mama, her quiet, swerving hand delicate on the brush and mouth of the brontosauruses. She said she wasn’t going to paint any predators. Only herbivores. The main room with fossils put together with plaster and paint, which Daddy and Pa put together, statues ringing the edges of the room, made by Mama’s hands. Dioramas set back into the walls, Bible stories with dinosaurs in the background: Samson and Delilah, a cluster of ornithopods behind them; David standing over the vanquished Goliath, an apatosaurus in the background. In the back, a room dedicated to evangelicalism, constructed proof of creationism glued to the wall. In places, the evolutionary timeline peeled away from the wall, leaving shadows of unbleached paint behind. Pa drove as far as Montana to pick up fossils, anything he could find, and came back with them wrapped in cloth to show us. He put the ones he collected in a special room, with specialized lighting, plaques around them saying that God would test our faith, and this was proof.

I know you miss the way Virginia smells in the summer. The sick-sweet of honeysuckle, climbing up fences. I know you miss plucking mountain laurel blossoms from their leaves, sticking them to the lobes of your ears, trellises of wildflowers against the conch and helix of your ear. 

I was the first one Aiden told about knocking up Ruth, the waitress who worked in the restaurant he ran next door. I was sitting on a folding chair behind the gift shop desk, talking to a woman over Reddit messenger who lived in Chicago but had moved there from Pulaski, Virginia, and missed home. She sent me pictures of her tits—perkier than mine—and we shared stories about Virginia summers, flowers, birds, music. Aiden knocked on the door and I locked my phone too quickly. 

He told me he was in big trouble while threading his fingers together, afraid to look up and meet my eyes. He looked like he hadn’t been sleeping, eyes puffy and darkened. His stubble hissed against his worn hands when he stroked his face. I noticed his hair had started thinning in the back, a small, sun-red coin at the center of it, just like Daddy. Ma and Pa were Daddy’s parents, but Pa had kept his hair his whole life. I guess I’d hoped for the same thing for Aiden. He looked just like when he was a little kid, hanging his head as he told me Ruth would have to move in with us, that she was three months along already and didn’t know until she went to the doctor for something else. He used to be a whirlwind of a child, breaking things, yelling, fighting with everyone, but I knew—maybe I was the only one who knew—that it was all protective, that his heart was a soft, pressable thing, so tender and delicate and afraid to let anyone else see it. He already got shit from men he was friends with in high school, all of them working in coal or manufacturing, and here Aiden was scalding his hands on hot oil and sleeplessly running through inventory details which seemed softer—more feminine—to them, at least. 

It was too late, I guess, for me to try and shame him about it. No point. He knocked her up; she’d have his baby. They’d have a shotgun wedding, settle unhappily into the same house, and here, start another miserable generation of Donahues. That was the only future people like Ruth, people like Aiden, people like me, were allowed to dream of. 

Ruth was eighteen – barely. I didn’t ask Aiden how long he’d been fucking her. I don’t think I wanted to know. I guess I’d hoped he saw what those older men I dated did to me—how they ran through me and left me with, first, a case of herpes, and second, a debilitating trauma response to anybody touching my neck—and would’ve learned how it looks from the other side. I hoped he wanted to be a better man than them. 

A story he wouldn’t want me to tell: Aiden and I were Ruth’s age. I had just walked home through the woods from the church parking lot, where I’d pushed the second boyfriend away from me, kicked and scratched him. His fingers left bright red marks on the side of my throat, which would bloom into yellow-blue-purple bruises I’d cover up with makeup and scarves. Daddy and Pa were in the museum. I shook the tears off the sides of my face, pushed open the front door. Aiden, watching TV in the living room, wearing gym shorts and a PREPARE TO BELIEVE t-shirt. He took one look at me, put both bare feet on the floor, walked to me, brought me into a strong, careful hug. We stood like that for a while. I let myself cry, wet his t-shirt with tears. Aiden’s heartbeat strong and steady, jumping in his neck. 

Eighteen-year-old pregnant Ruth. When we went to church on Sunday, third pew on the left side, Ruth still sat with her parents, looking down during the service. While the rest of the congregation had their heads bowed in prayer, I watched her hold her youngest sister’s hand, whisper along to the pastor’s words. I wondered if her parents knew, her mother. I wondered what Ruth’s dreams were. I wondered if anyone’d ever asked her.

I spent most of my time at work on the internet, on the slow, outdated iPhone Aiden gave me three birthdays ago, texting with women who lived all over the place: lonely women who left Appalachia eagerly, but missed the familiarity of the accent, the languages, the music, the sounds and smells of home. At night, when I tucked myself into my attic bedroom and talked on the phone with them, they often asked me to say words they hadn’t heard with an accent in years. Remember, you started like this, too. You asked me to tell you about my favorite recipes, to walk through every step of making cornbread. Their voices switched from the careful, curated nothingness needed to pass in city lives, cutting off the languages they grew up with, but then slipped back into lazy vowels and nasal “a”s. In the purple past-midnight dark, alone in my bedroom, I took off my clothes for them over FaceTime, approximated and allowed the tenderness of another body, avoided the parts of me I didn’t like. Pa wanted me to get married, desperately, wanted me to be pregnant and in a house in another part of the holler, come over for supper once or twice a week, let the kids run wild in the backyard just like Aiden and I did. And it’s not that I didn’t try. There were boyfriends, both much older when I was a teenager, and I let them move their bodies against mine in the backseats of Ford F-250s, let their callused, blistered hands roughen the edges of my face, my breasts, my skin, and I knew as sure as I knew my name that I hated this, but it was what a good girl did and I wanted to be a good girl. The boys I went to high school with had all grown up and gotten married and had kids now. Nearly thirty, an old maid, still sleeping in the attic, next to all of Mama’s abandoned dinosaur paintings and the clay she tried to fashion into stegosaurus sculptures.

Mama and Ma both kept Pa and Daddy off mine and Aiden’s backs as we grew up. They said, let them be kids for a minute. There’s time, so much time, for grown-up things. They’ll get there. Mama died when I was walking the line between kid and teenager, breast cancer, which took Ma, too, six years later. It wasn’t like we could afford health insurance, and we all knew the water here held arsenic and lead leeched from the mines and mountaintop removal. 

One of Mama’s favorite movies was The Wizard of Oz, and after she and Ma died, I felt like the opposite of Dorothy: plunged into a world of black-and-white instead of bright, burning color, a flattening. Pa reminded me I was the woman of the house after Ma died, so I did the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the housekeeping. Ma, especially, and Mama too, were used to this: it was expected of them, of all the women they’d known while growing up, but I was younger, and I read, and before we had internet or phones at home, I walked down the mountain to the library to get on the computer,  and I knew this wasn’t the way women had to be. Even as I knew better, I washed the plates and I made pot roasts and roasted chicken and swept the floors and washed the sheets and starched the shirts and ironed the slacks. It’s what a good girl does. Remember, 1 Corinthians 11:9: man was not created for woman, but woman was created for man. 

I often watched The Wizard of Oz on the tinny-speaker TV in the living room. Sometimes, Aiden came in with sandwiches, handed one to me, sat on the opposite side of the couch. 

Do you miss the way fireflies come out in the summer here? Did you, too, spend your summer evenings as a girl plucking lightning bugs out of the air, putting them in mason jars? I caught so many of them when I was a girl. I wanted the whole room Aiden and I shared to shimmer with bioluminescence.

Before Daddy came in one morning, I went to get the vacuum cleaner and the carpet shampoo from his office. I noticed, half-hidden under a manila folder, a series of bills marked COLLECTIONS, the paper underneath yellow and pink. On the wall was a picture of Pa when he was young, with all the faith and joy and hope of a young man just graduating from high school. Pa’s dream, made manifest in this squat building, the statues and exhibits Pa built and collected, was falling apart. I took the vacuum cleaner in one hand and the carpet shampoo in the other, walking back under swooping pterodactyls and Billy Graham’s voice. 

I cleaned and washed the windows and let sleep settle into my eyes. I wondered, sometimes, if Pa’s spirit would linger here, if he, too, was walking through the exhibits, gently touching and adjusting the work he spent all his life doing. When Daddy came in, I didn’t ask about the bills. He said nothing as he unzipped his jacket, combed his hair, poured coffee out of his thermos into a chipped enamel YOU DON’T HAVE TO SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT mug.

Daddy never mentioned the bills. He sat at the ticket counter and read through Pa’s old journals from the year he built the museum. 

Pa and Daddy always kept the Billy Graham tapes rolling in the museum, and Graham’s voice through the halls rang clear, shouting homosexuality is a SIN from the creationism corner while I was drawing naked women in the back of my journal. I preferred the front of the museum, the plaques Pa made himself saying that God made the world in seven days, that He put fossils into the earth to test us. After Pa died, Daddy renamed the museum, spray-painted Pa’s name on the front door. 

I said no. Said, my family needs me, and they’ll cast me out the minute they hear I’m gay. I said, I’ll wait until Pa dies, since I knew he wouldn’t take it well. Then he died, and I started to say, well, Pa just died. I don’t know how Daddy will handle it. I’m dealing with my own grief, too. And honestly, being closeted was comfortable.

I once was texting with a woman in New York who asked if I was out to my parents, because when she came out to her parents while living in the lower Ozarks, they never said a single word to her again. She moved to New York with nothing but two suitcases, $300, and kept herself afloat with survival sex work until she could get an apartment, a job as a barista, cut off her hair, pierce her ears and nose, date women, let herself know happiness. I said no. Said, my family needs me, and they’ll cast me out the minute they hear I’m gay. I said, I’ll wait until Pa dies, since I knew he wouldn’t take it well. Then he died, and I started to say, well, Pa just died. I don’t know how Daddy will handle it. I’m dealing with my own grief, too. And honestly, being closeted was comfortable. I didn’t feel great about sitting across the table from Daddy and knowing I was hiding something this crucial. Not just who I wanted to sleep with, but how I saw the world, how I loved people, how I learned to know myself. I felt worse and worse. 

When Pa was still alive, but after he’d gotten too sick to sit at the dinner table, our conversation had loosened into the scrape of forks against plates, the clink of silverware against the worn wooden table. Daddy said he’d make a his and hers portrait of Ma and Pa to hang up in the foyer, the two of them looking at each other from separate frames, collections of the things they loved below them: Ma’s roses, her quilt-making, Christian romance novels, Pa’s woodworking, dinosaurs, and trains. Daddy said, off-hand, that he’d make these for me and Aiden, too, once we got married. More like hers and hers, I said, and stopped myself, and looked down at the collection of peas back on my plate. I felt a bead of sweat roll in the sagging part where my tits met my chest. 

Daddy didn’t know what it meant, my tiny confession, and that was enough. 

At night, after Aiden, Daddy, and I all walked up the lawn back home, I made us dinner. I left dough to rise all day before we went to work and came home to put it in the oven, the smell of fresh bread lingering and sighing through our shabby old house. We Donahues have lived here since coming from Ireland during the potato famine and did the one thing we were good for: dig into the chest of the mountain, come back with faces full of soot and dust. Pa was the last coal miner of our family. The way Daddy tells it, Pa came home and scrubbed his hands and face for hours, but the soot never really went away. Coal dust settles into every corner of our house. When I clean, when I get on my hands and knees and scrub the corners of the kitchen and bathroom, I come back with hands black from coal. My family had kids young because youth was all they were guaranteed. Black lung, mine collapse, fires, the men in my family knew that every time they were swallowed into the throat of the mountains may be the last. 

Pa was a coal miner for a long time. He was respected in our community, but never would be seen as good enough to merit moving to Roanoke, where the mining companies were headquartered. After his body started seizing up when he went down to the mines—he never would have said it was anxiety, but just a physical ailment, a constriction of his lungs, a dizziness, something like that—he opened up the museum. Everyone was Christian; almost everyone was Pentecostal. Sure, our great-great-great grandparents were Catholic, but the Pentecostal influence in the part of Virginia where her spine rose to greet the sun was impossible to run away from. Aiden and I were both baptized when we were ten, submerged fully into the pool the pastor kept behind the altar. Free from our sins, us ten-year-olds too young to sin, anyway. 

I prayed every night, more of a sense of obligation than desire. Mama, Ma, and Pa all believed with a fever, believed so strongly that all I had to do was listen. Daddy and Aiden believed in a way that felt quieter, less certain. Their fevered faith didn’t save them then, and didn’t save me, and even so I never stopped praying, not really, even when I started to think that it was just going out into the universe somewhere instead of straight to God. I was a kid, sitting on the corner of my bed, praying, and thinking God gets millions, maybe billions, of prayers a day. He’s got wars and floods and famine to work on. What does He care if I’m worried about Mama’s breast cancer? But I prayed anyway, with all the language I had: Dear Lord, heal Ma, Mama, Pa. Heal them in body, mind, and spirit. Let their home shine a hallowed light that burns forever to honor their spirited fight. I prayed for Ma and Mama every day until their cancers took them. I prayed for Pa every day for his Parkinson’s to stop, to forgive him, to take its hands back. We’d been on the same well water all Pa’s life, backing up to a farm, and Daddy talked to his siblings—two sisters who married men in hollers nearby, but not in this same corner of Virginia—and worried that all of them carried this same curse, that sooner or later, Parkinson’s would stretch its hands down their throats, too. Aiden and I never talked about this, not the threats about Daddy and Auntie June and Auntie Carrie getting sick, not that he and I drank this same damn well water, not that we’d have to take care of our Daddy someday. We didn’t talk about the grief of losing Pa. We didn’t talk about how much we missed Mama and Ma. All three of us sat quiet at the dinner table and ate. We talked about God. We said grace. We talked about the museum. We talked about what we needed to do the next day. We talked about the weather. We talked about taking the kayaks out when the summer came back. We talked about the churches nearby, asked when they’re taking trips to visit the museum. And this was it, and this was all, and after Aiden and Daddy went into the den to watch whatever sport was on, after I washed all the dishes, after I rolled out dough to rise overnight, I went upstairs to the same bedroom I’ve been in all my life, stepped out of my long skirt, unbuttoned my shirt, pulled off my underwear, kept my bra on, and filmed myself masturbating to send to a woman from Shenandoah who lived in Miami. 

Do you remember how it looks, in the mountains when it snows?  Remember how the ice slicks and encases the branches, the tree trunks, how it feels so fragile and impossible and timeless. Do you remember how quiet everything feels, here, in the winter? Do you remember missing the birdsong? I love a late snowstorm when the cardinals come back. A flash of scarlet, fleeting through the frosted trees. 

Aiden told Daddy about Ruth before work. The three of us walked together down to the museum, bundled against the cold. Our breath frosted the air. The cold snapped twigs, settled into the snowed branches. 

He said it almost casually, that Ruth was pregnant, that it was his baby, that he was going to do the right thing and ask her to marry him, that she’d have to move into the house. The room where Pa lived in his last years was the natural choice for him and Ruth: it had its own bathroom, a big enough bed, space for a cradle. Daddy didn’t want to give up that suite, we both knew. Pa’s ghost was still in those sheets, still in every photo. All the books still had Pa’s fingerprints. His jackets in the closet still smelled like him. 

I expected Daddy to lose it. Say something like, what is wrong with you, son. Say, save all this nonsense for marriage, that’s what God made marriage for, that’s what God made women for, that’s the bounds of marriage. I expected him to shout so loud that the snow shivered. Instead, Daddy said okay.

Said, it’ll be good to have a baby around.

Aiden looked down at the footprints he left in the snow. If it’s a boy, he said, we’re naming him after Pa. If it’s a girl, we’ll name her after Mama. 

Neither of us had ever seen Daddy cry, but in that moment, he was trying his hardest to choke back tears. We could hear them crowding and shuffling in his throat. When we got to the museum, Daddy spent a long time cleaning the placard about God making the world in seven days. He kept his back to us. We could hear him breathing in, out, slow and steady and on purpose. 

I cleaned each piece of the Noah’s Ark LEGO set, rubbing dust from the backs of elephants and ducks and brontosauruses. Aiden vacuumed the carpet for half an hour before setting up for the day in the restaurant. Spring was trying to burst through winter’s fist, but so far, winter was winning. It was so quiet. Pa liked music, but Daddy didn’t, so instead of Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash playing from the record player Pa set up behind the counter, it was just the squeak of rags against plastic, the hum of the vacuum cleaner, the throat-clearing of the heat. The records and player still sat there, poised, ready, gathering a thin layer of dust that Daddy brushed away. 

I cleaned the dust off all the QUESTION EVOLUTION t-shirts and sat behind the gift store counter, texting with you, a recent transplant to Seattle who missed Boone, North Carolina. Everyone’s so cold here, you said, and sent me a picture of your tits. If I were to scroll through my camera roll, it would be almost all tits, mine and other womens’, a few pictures of sunsets and snow, maybe some covers of books I wanted to buy next time I could get out to the bookstore in Front Royal. 

My favorite season is spring. Daffodils growing, poking their heads through the dirt and leaf debris in the woods. It feels so much like a baptism, how it pours down rain here in the spring. Do you remember the smell of the earth after a good rain, when it all feels pregnant and full of promise? I hear people on TV talk about the terroir of a wine. We’re all red-clay earth here. The terroir of a home. Who would we be if we’d grown up in other homes? In other mountains? In other hollers? 

When I was about eighteen, after I realized I was gay and had given up on my faith returning, I started to walk to the library down the mountain. There were so many things I had questions about but no one to ask. So, books. So, writers in cities far away. 

Though the library in town was better than the library in the Pentecostal church, which was entirely the Left Behind series and Bible guides, it still was limited; the town council said they would ban any books that explicitly talked about gay people, so all the books that remained were squeaking under the radar. After I checked out Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, one of the librarians noticed me. She asked if I wanted more books like this, and when I was afraid to meet her eyes but said yes, she gave me paperbacks from her own personal collection, told me to keep them secret and safe. Chelsea Girls. Rubyfruit Jungle. Orlando. Written on the Body. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. The Price of Salt. The librarian had highlighted sentences and paragraphs, drawn little hearts in the margins.

After I returned Rubyfruit Jungle to the librarian, she stopped me, asked in a way that wasn’t really a question if I was the kid of the creationist dinosaur museum family. When I hesitated, then eventually said yes, she gave me a small, sad head shake. In a plastic bag, she added a few books about evolution and science. We didn’t learn evolution in public school. 

I know how hard it is to be someone different here, the librarian said. But it’s worth it, to be who you are. It takes a toll on someone’s spirit, lying does. 

I looked for her every time I went down the mountain. I watched her check books in and out, talk to kids, help register for library cards. She wore a pin on her badge that said VOTE, had hollows in her nose where piercings once sat. 

Ruth moved into the house as the spring finally pressed through winter. Church groups were starting to travel again. We took tickets. Daddy still rarely spoke. He nodded to Ruth as she moved in. Gave her a coffee cup to welcome her. I gave her a PREPARE TO BELIEVE t-shirt that she never wore in the morning like the rest of us did. Pregnancy hormones erupted Ruth’s face into acne, which made her look even younger than eighteen. She and I didn’t talk much. She was a shy, squirrely creature, demure and looked down when anyone spoke to her. Aiden didn’t know how to act around her anymore. I rarely saw them interact together at the restaurant, but it felt distinctly like a man who didn’t understand how young women work, barely an adult, in the first relationship that should have taught her what not to do. Instead, she held grocery store flowers as a bouquet, married him at the church on a Wednesday night, where she wore a gray dress with a rip at the bodice and promised to obey my brother. 

I started to talk to you two or three times a week over the phone, and you told me to talk, just talk, about anything at all, just to listen to an accent that sounded like home. We didn’t have our accents in TV shows or movies. I talked about Aiden, about Ruth, about Daddy. I talked, a little bit, about Pa. I talked about Mama and Ma and how they were so much better at folding themselves into the boxes marked with what women should be than I was, how I was trying to keep up but tripping over my feet at every turn. When that felt too much, I asked about what you were wearing. I said, if you were here right now, I’d kiss every inch of your body. 

Do you ever think about how vulvic the shape of a flower is? I was looking at pictures of roses the other day. Ma was such a gardener. Maybe I could be good at that, too. The perfect swirl of a rose, the clitoral raise at the top of it. The fold and lip of irises. 

Ruth’s body softened. Her breasts and stomach grew, expanded. She disappeared into t-shirts. She was so, so quiet, so hesitant to ask for anything, to show us the weakness of her body, and I guessed that she was, would always be, ashamed that she had sex before marriage, and would accept everything that happened as a penance for this basic, basic sin. She spoke to almost no one, said almost nothing. She and Daddy sat at opposite sides of the table—where Pa sat, before his Parkinson’s got too bad for him to hold a fork—and neither of them said a word. Daddy sliced into his pork chops and stabbed his green peas and Ruth pressed her thumbs into the stomach of a dinner roll and pressed it into soft butter and when they had to speak to each other, it felt like being where a fault line spiderwebs, a threat of something falling apart. Daddy never looked Ruth in the eyes, only at her stomach. 

She and I folded laundry after work, Aiden falling asleep over restaurant inventory receipts, Daddy watching basketball. When Pa was alive, the two of them would have been screaming, yelling at the TV, but now, so silent, only the squeak of the players’ shoes on the lacquer, the tick of the clock, the low-voiced ESPN announcers. 

Ruth sat down opposite me to fold laundry. Her thin, downy hair fell into her eyes, slick with sweat against her forehead. Her stomach pressed against her thin thighs when she leaned forward, and I pretended not to notice the twinge of pain appearing between her eyebrows. Her hands moved quickly, nimbly. I pulled t-shirts and boxers and period-stained underwear, folded them into neat squares, piles for me and Daddy to take upstairs. Ruth had a basket of her and Aiden’s clothes, delicately tucking the arms of shirts and the folds of skirts, making two even, separate piles. The rumble of an air-conditioning commercial floated through the living room. Ruth didn’t look up. This was the closest I could feel to her, her silent, breathy presence across the basket, the two of us folded into a world of women’s work. 

I slept even worse after Ruth moved in. I’d sit frustrated in bed willing myself to sleep but awake anyway. I started wandering the house, first, and then the museum. The house was a still, brave thing, keeping secrets and whispers behind their closed, firm, locked doors. Daddy snoring through the door, asleep with his earplugs in and fan running, a low hum from the TV he watched before bed and forgot to turn off slipping under the door. The bathrooms with their black mirrors, the living room settled and still. The refrigerator’s moan, the whoosh of water through pipes like blood through arteries. Ruth and Aiden, also often unslept, arguing quietly in their first-floor bedroom. Sometimes, Ruth cried. Sometimes, Aiden did, too. 

The museum was uncomplicated at night. I unlocked the door, turned off the alarm, turned on the emergency lights, bathing the room in a cool glow. It threw shadows over the faces of the dinosaurs, their paint chipping from years of hands running over their noses, the bronze in the statue out front—a woman riding a dinosaur—smoothed from years of holding two hands at either side of the dinosaur’s face. The woman’s breasts were worn similarly, two small uncoursed planes where the rest of her shirt was rumpled and detailed, lightened, the hands of men claiming even this bronze likeness of a woman. 

I’d sit here, in the center of the museum, crossing my legs underneath me, and read until the sun started to press her hands through the windows. Birds were coming back. I could hear them rustle and stretch and yawn in the mornings. Bugs, too, starting to buzz in the trees, clinging to the mountain laurels, singing with their full throats. I walked, from low-lit dinosaur sculpture to low-lit dinosaur sculpture, tracing the fingerprints Pa left in the plaster, the fingernail marks in Mama’s work that still settled into the paint at the bottom. If Pa was anywhere, he was here, still rattling around in the heating system and the dioramas. In the warped, smudged glass where Daddy put together dioramas of Bible stories with dinosaurs in the background, I saw sallowed, sleepless versions of my face thrown back in the lighting. Behind the ticket counter, Daddy kept photos taped to the wall. One photo, Pa holding me as a baby, Ma right behind him, both of them beaming, was worn at the corners, greasy from touch. I couldn’t leave him. I couldn’t keep living here in silence. 

In the morning, when Daddy opened the door to find me standing in the middle of the main room, a book under my elbow, fear crusting my eyes, he stopped. 

Daddy? I said. Can I tell you something?

The lakes in Appalachia are so beautiful. Did you learn how to swim in a lake, too? I loved to slip under the water in the summer, how the water shone and shimmered. The mud and growth squishing between my toes. Water-skimmers sailing past. I wasn’t a very good swimmer, but I loved to just float. The kiss of the sun, the caress of the water. I know you want me to leave. I know I can’t. I know. I know. 

Ruth gave birth in May, when the wildflowers spat through the field between the house and the museum, when the rainwater ran through the gutters and kept all of us awake as the house shuddered and shook. Ruth didn’t cry or scream when she gave birth. The baby was small, all spindling limbs and wailing voice, sticky with birth and blood. A girl. Ruth cried once the cord was cut, a quiet, steady stream of tears. She offered the baby to Aiden, who took her, looked into her helpless, squishy blue eyes, Pa’s eyes, Daddy’s eyes, mine, Aiden’s. We passed her from scarred set of hands to scarred set of hands. 

Rachael Marie Walker is a Seattle writer who grew up learning
to love words and music in the weeds of Virginia. Find them on social 
media @rachaelwalking.

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