Marlon stood at the creekbed, staring down into the water he had watched run behind his grandmother’s house since he was a boy. The sun’s reflection made him think he could see her white hair shimmering off its surface, and the crackling water made him sure he could hear her voice, telling him the story he’d heard since he was a child.
."When I was small," her voice had the frail drawl of a fading old lady, " it rained steady for a week once." He was watching the water spiders skipping on the creek, but he was seeing her crinkled face telling the story once again.
"We all played at the creek. There was always the five of us, but the one I remember best was Marcus Villanue- He’s the one that sticks out in my mind. We all played there every summer, right from after the ice broke straight through until late in the fall. But the creekwater was so high after that rain… I stayed home- That day I stayed home!"
Grandmother always got agitated at the drowning part; it was as if she could see their faces again, maybe even hear their last words, just before they were swept away.
The last time she told Marlon the story, she looked up from the shawl on her lap, with a bright ,quizzical expression and repeated a rhyme he imagined was a piece of folklore from her childhood:
" Two brown jars filled with a murky water, in one a son , in the other a daughter. Four others were filled, all thought they’ d drowned, and not a trace was ever found."
Marlon was glad she couldn’t see the creek now: bottles and cans littered the banks from the parties two local teenagers threw on Saturday nights that kept him up staring out his window but not daring to go outside to confront them.
Soon after she died, the house became too quiet and big for Marlon; the silence made him feel its old frame was watching him like an unwanted intruder and so, driven by loneliness and grief, he advertised in the town paper for a room-mate.
It was in the afternoon on a fall day, with the rain starting to fall onto the roof and into the creek, that Marlon’s advertisement was answered. By the time he walked down the hall to the front door, the rain had started in earnest, pounding on the roof of the house-angry and vital- finally free from its gaoler clouds. The bell rang for the second time and Marlon answered it.
The man at the door was taller and older than Marlon; he wore a long grey raincoat and was holding his hat down over his eyes, warding off the rain that blew in sheets onto the porch. Under his free arm, he cradled a cardboard box.
"May I come in?" the man said, anxious but amused by his predicament. "I’m here to see about the room."
"Yes, of course…I’m sorry." Marlon held the door open to let him step into the house.
"Do you have somewhere I could wash these out?" he asked ,jiggling the box slightly under his arm.
"There’s a sink at the end of the hall…you can," but the man was already walking toward the kitchen, clutching the box in both hands and bumping a picture in the hall
lopsided as he passed. He set the box on the counter beside the sink and Marlon followed, stopping to straighten the picture.
It was an old photograph of grandmother’s ill-fated friends; it had hung in the hallway for so long Marlon could see the paint on the wall had faded everywhere but behind where the photograph had been bumped. Four of the group stood looking at the camera from the creekbed, and, from the angle, Marlon imagined his great-grandfather taking the shot in front of the screen door, with grandmother looking on. Two of the boys looked indifferent and scornful, their young chins pointed slightly upward in a defiant posture.
A girl stood between the boys; her hands folded in front of her ,biting her bottom lip, smiling coyly . Marcus Villanue stood apart from the group, off to one side and closer to the house. Marlon passed by the picture many times since his grandmother died-he’d often caught her standing in front of it and staring on rainy days-but because it hung crooked on the side where Marcus stood, the drowned teen-ager caught Marlon’s attention and he momentarily forgot his guest in the kitchen.
Marcus had an intense appearance ,not a frown but a thoughtful expression that made him seem timeless to Marlon, even with his black hair parted in the middle. He was wearing knickers held up by a belt buckle too big to be the boy’s own; it was shaped like the letter V and Marcus held the lapels of his jacket off to the sides to show off what Marlon imagined to be a family heirloom. He straightened the picture, stood back to make sure it was even and, for the second time that day, his grandmother’s voice echoed in his mind:
" They were never found, not a trace was ever found."
He turned and looked into the kitchen: The man in the grey raincoat was gone; his cardboard box lay on the counter with the flaps open and the screen door leading to the backyard and creek was open. Marlon went to the door and looked out through the white downpour.
He could hear rain slapping off the grey raincoat and he watched the man bend and scoop some creekwater into a mason jar. He stood up and studied the water, holding the jar at eye level with both hands, then put it beside another on the bank. He wiped his hands on his legs and started back toward the house.
"My apologies," he said coming in through the screen door and taking off his coat and hat. "I hope I didn’t give you a bad impression with that bit of business, but the jars are very old and special to me and I find creekwater is much better for them. I’m afraid I haven’t introduced myself, my name is Salvador Johanson."
He brushed past Marlon and disappeared into the hallway.
"And again, my apologies for bumping against your fine picture," he said from the hall, "I was most concerned about getting your carpets wet and I didn’t see it, but now I see you’ve already straightened it."
Marlon went to the kitchen sink and poured two glasses of scotch from the bottle he kept in the cupboard underneath; he handed one to Salvador and both men stood looking at the picture.
"I enjoy old photographs," Salvador said. "They remind me of simpler times, of-if you’ll pardon the expression- better times. Especially this one, it captures the essence of things and people and seems to suspend them in time."
Marlon looked at Salvador: he’d been drawn recently by nostalagia and he liked the way Salvador curled the end of his handlebar moustache with two fingers.
"Its hard to find such a well preserved piece of an actual moment, a slice of someone pressed like a wildflower into a book," Salvador continued, "but, every now
and then, I happen across some remarkable examples and here is one. Still, there are always more in Europe, a richer history I suppose."
"Oh?" said Marlon, looking at the picture to keep from staring," have you travelled much?"
"Yes," said Salvador sipping the scotch, "I’m always on the lookout to preserve a piece of history wherever I can find it and the conditions merit."
"Well…We may not compare to Rome or Vienna, but you may find something to pique your interest here," Marlon said.
"Usually, I find something wherever I go," Salvador said, leaning toward the picture and squinting at Marcus Villanue.
For the first time in a long while, Marlon felt comfortable in the old house that night when he went to bed; it had not occurred to him to look for a room-mate before now and he felt lucky to find a man of Salvador’s obvious distinction so easily. ( There
were no hotels or rooming houses in town; Salvador had intended to continue on to the bigger city an hour away, but stopped to buy a soft drink at the town’s gas station and found Marlon’s ad in the paper.) The rain had started to fall on the roof again; its soft patter and the scotch lulled Marlon to sleep-He’d forgotten it was Saturday night and the usual group would be enjoying the night outside his bedroom window, down by the creek.
He woke with a start; he’d been sleeping soundly and it took a moment to recognize the noise coming from outside as the teenagers. By now, he could picture them in his mind: the strapping boy wearing a football jacket with the school’s insignia-a grizzly bear-over his left breast and his girlfriend, who always looked haughty and indifferent whenever Marlon had seen them lounging around the gas station’s vending machines where Salvador had bought his pop. The rain that had lulled him to sleep had stopped; Marlon, awake again, lay in his bed listening to their voices coming from the creek below.
He was about to get up and peek from his window when he heard the faint click of Salvador’s door opening from down the hall by the staircase. He heard footsteps on the stairs and knew Salvador was trying not to make a sound, but each step gave a high creak as he went down. The screen door opened and Marlon drew a breath and held it.
He let the breath out when the screen door swung on its rusty hinge and slammed shut. It started to rain again- the pellets sounded like pebbles crashing against his window and he could hear its staccato popping in the creek. Open palms of rain slapped against the side of the house, and between the angry lashes of pounding water, Marlon could hear the teenagers.
Her wild laughter was clear and separate from the storm, pulsing in bursts to his window. He was hooting and yelling something unintelligible, like some wild animal ready to bear down. It all had its own percussion, and the tempo quickened until Marlon sat up in bed on his elbows waiting for the rain to break in through his window and snatch him outside. Then…..It stopped…… The young girl’s anxious but excited laugh, the yells of the wild boy on the brink of conquest and the rain: primal, furious and uninhibiting, stopped like it had all been snapped shut by a tap.
Marlon strained to listen into the silence and the screen door opened slowly, its rusty hinge squeaking higher than before. Salvador came back up the stairs and Marlon heard the click as his door shut behind him. He tried to fall back to sleep, but the slow
drip of the rain falling off the trough to the patio stones kept him awake anticipating the next drop to splatter on the pavement below.
The sun was shining through his window when Marlon woke up the next day; he’d finally drifted off to sleep before sunrise and, interested to know why Salvador had gone outside in the storm, he dressed quickly and went down to the kitchen. The house was quiet; he didn’t see his room-mate downstairs, so he doubled back through the hall, past the picture, and stopped at the base of the stairs looking up. There was a note pinned to Salvador’s door he hadn’t seen before and he went up the stairs, got it, and brought it back down. He stood reading by the back screen door.
You were absolutely right! There are things here that have piqued my interest. I found some of them last night. Will explain everything to you upon my return.
Marlon turned to take the note back upstairs; he looked back over his shoulder at the creekbed but didn’t notice the mason jars filled with creekwater were gone.
He was standing in front of Salvador’s door with the note in his hand. He looked at the brass doorknob and felt a rush of boyhood adventure. Who would know? he thought. Don’t I have right to know what’s in one of my rooms? He pinned the note back on the door and suddenly felt like the little boy who would continue playing in the creek, ignoring grandmother when she called him. He drew a breath and, afraid the knob would make a sound loud enough to give him away, turned it and slipped inside.
Salvador’s room was immaculate and Marlon immediately felt ashamed. Shoes were arranged so the tips stuck out from under the bed in a straight line and colognes and gels were laid out neatly on a facecloth spread on the dresser. The precision in the room drew Marlon’s eye to the closet door: it was open and the light inside was on. Marlon crossed the room, opened the door to shut the light out, and saw the two mason jars on the top shelf arranged side by side.
He recognized them as the two Salvador had filled with creekwater; it was a brown murky liquid with small bits of leaves and twigs floating inside. He picked one up and shook it lightly-something moved sluggishly inside . He tilted the jar toward the closet light. When he saw what was at the bottom ,he felt his temples and chest tighten, and he put the jar on the closet floor quickly, jerking away like it was hot to the touch. He remembered the first time he had seen the grizzly bear on the boy’s coat and how he’d thought he would always be able to remember such a striking insignia wherever he might see it again.
He pulled the other jar off the shelf and put it on the floor. He looked back up on the shelf and saw four older jars behind what had been the row in front. He had to strain to reach back and could only tilt the top of the nearest one into the light. When it tilted forward, something made a dull clunk inside and reflected the closet light into Marlon’s eyes. He let the jar fall back into place and stood staring at the brown soup of the creekwater, watching in disbelief as Marcus Villanue’s belt buckle spiraled downward , disappearing into the sediment at the bottom.
Marlon’s chest pounded and his erratic breathing drowned out the sound of the rain, which had started to tap lightly on the roof of the house.
He reached up tentatively to tilt the jar back into the light to make sure he had really seen the long dead boy’s belt buckle, then quickly picked the one up from the hardwood floor to put it back , but it slipped from his hands falling and breaking the glass-the brown water spread over the planks and seeped into the cracks . He watched the grizzly bear disappear from view as the saturated insignia curled in on itself.
For a second after he first heard the whimpering, he thought the reverberation from the breaking glass was playing tricks on him, but he heard a second whimper and a cry followed by a feeble sentence. The voice was unmistakable; he’d spent many
Saturday nights listening to the other, more cocksure, version of the football player outside his bedroom window.
"Mommy?" the boy’s voice cracked between sobs, "Is that you Mommy? Please come and get me, I’m lost Mommy….. I don’t know where he put us, Mommy."
As the water seeped down into the cracks and disappeared, the voice muffled until,finally, Marlon could only feel its vibration under his feet.
He ran from Salvador’s room, down the stairs, through the hallway, out the screen door and into the rain-He didn’t hear the door open and close quietly at the front of the house.
He ran into the creek and then downstream. He heard his grandmother’s voice again,and he heard her old rhyme with a new understanding that shook his vision and tightened his chest as he ran:
" Two brown jars filled with a murky water, in one a son in the other a daughter. Four others were filled ,all thought they’d drowned, and not a trace was ever found."
But Marlon had found a trace in his room-mate’s closet and the rain stung his head while the creekwater jumped in white spurts around his feet. He knew this rain had followed Salvador to his grandmother’s house long ago and came back last night; that Salvador used it ,mixed with creekwater, to collect souls for his personal menagerie like pickled beets in mason jars.. Marlon wondered how much of the charming folklore of other places ,both here and abroad, was really a part of this twisted nightmare. How many grandmothers, in how many countries, speaking how many different languages, had passed the story along as nothing more than a scary bedtime fable for their grandchildren? Marlon shuddered to think tales like Marcus Villanue’s dotted the landscape wherever Salvador traveled.
He was still running from what he’d found in the closet when he lost his balance and fell into the murky water, his head going under and hitting a rock. He came up for air and the rain stung his face. Then, he heard the familiar noise of it slapping off the back of a grey raincoat and he knew Salvador was standing directly behind him, filling up another mason jar with creekwater.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Starr
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.