When you are down in the dirt out back digging your hole, not singing or thinking, just digging, I watch you from the deck you built me along the back of our trailer. You said the deck was something for the land to hold onto if we ever moved our home, as you drove the redwood posts into the hard earth. You look up when you feel me sitting there, on the strong thing your hands built, your face covered in mud, mud made by your sweat and all that dirt you’re moving around and the only thing I recognize from so far away is your eyes but your eyes, they are so pretty, so bright. When my father met you he said, “It’s not right for a man to have such beautiful eyes.” He doesn’t like to be surprised by beautiful things and he is uncomfortable around good men because he is not a good man. He hates how they can see through him. You see through him.
When you come in at night, you wash away the hours you have spent underground. You stand at the kitchen sink and scrub your hands until you look more like yourself. You use your Bowie knife to clean under the pale crescents of your fingernails. You tell me about all the living and lost things you’ve seen, buried or forgotten, and how beautiful life is beneath the ground we walk on. I never ask why you are digging that hole. I don’t need to know. Sometimes a man has something he needs to do. We eat bread and meat with our hands. We drink fruit soaked wine. You smile at me, trace my knuckles with your torn fingers, rough and scabbed. You tell me you love the softness in me. I always remind you I am not so soft. I give you a hard look when I say such things. You say you love when I am bold, your voice so low I want to give myself over to you, loudly, shamelessly. I always do.
I draw you a bath and sit on the warm, damp edge of the tub while you soak and the water turns gray and the weight of the underworld floats up and gathers around your chest. I wash you clean with plain soap, drain the tub, fill it with fresh water. Often, I join you, step into the warmth, let you peel me naked. I lie between your thighs, cover your hands in mine as you touch me. I drown in your body, how it has changed since you found your calling to dig until you found the center of the world. Your arms are wrapped in thick muscle, muscles that ripple when you breathe. There are things you could do to me I would not recover from if you were a different kind of man. My father is that different kind of man. We don’t talk about it but you know what I know about bad men who don’t or won’t do right by their women. You try to help me forget. When we are in the bath together, you touch me everywhere. If I try to wrap my arms across my chest, you smile gently and I relax, let my arms float at my sides. My hair clings to my face and when I try to move the wet strands away, you grab my wrist, sending a thrill through my heart. You shake your head. You say you are always perfect exactly as you are. You show me my perfection. The water never cools.
Later, when you smell like your skin and I smell like your skin, you take me on a walk. We make our way past that hole in the ground so deep you have built an unfathomable staircase out of rusted nails and rain soaked wood so you can always make your way back to me. We won’t talk, we don’t much, (I do love quiet in a man) but you hold me close enough I can feel the warm from inside you, how your body vibrates with breath. We go down to the water where you sit on a stone bench, roughly hewn, also made by your hands. There is nothing you cannot do with your hands. You take off your boots and soak your feet in the cold of the creek. You sigh. The nights here are so bright with moonlight. We stare up at the moon and try to remember what the world was like when we could see the sun. Silver fish swim between your ankles and glow and remind us of all the things we will never know. I stand behind you, pull your shirt off, and when I start working the knots out of your muscles, you groan from somewhere deep, from that place where you love me, a place you like to tell me when you’re feeling sweet, that is deeper than you could ever dig.
You have a history with the world below this world. Your granddaddy worked the mines before they closed; he worked so many long, terrible hours below the ground, said it was so dark and lonely and cold down there, he needed to touch the sun before he died. That idea got into him and he couldn’t let it go. It got into him so deeply, all he could think about was feeling the heat of the sun so close to his skin it would burn. He bought himself an old plane and everyone in town laughed at him, said a man who spent his life underground would never know a thing about the sky. Your granddaddy, though, he was a stubborn man and he was smart, like you. He learned to fly and he got his affairs in order and he kissed your grandmother goodbye. She said it was the best kiss the man ever laid on her. She said, in that one moment, between their lips and the softness of their tongues, she knew love—she knew love was cruel because she also understood, in her blood and bones, she would only have that one moment to hold onto. Your granddaddy wrote a note to his wife, accounting for all the things he never did right; he said he would die with her memory on his lips. He went to the airport and he washed his plane until it gleamed red and white. He took off and flew up and up and right into the middle of the sun. The old folks say that was the brightest day there ever was and that’s why now, the sun don’t ever shine on us, because you’re granddaddy’s up there, trying to soak it all in, make things right for himself.
They don’t like us much in town, blame you for all the darkness, hold you responsible for the sin of your blood. You take it well. You tell folks at least your granddaddy touched the sun when most of the world doesn’t even know how to look up or down or at anything that isn’t right in front of them. On black summer days when we are both feeling fine, we put on our finest, you stand tall and take my hand and we walk down Main Street, take our time, enjoy warmth and the orange glow of the gas lamps filling the afternoon. You hold my hand, with just the right amount of pressure to remind me whom I belong to. You always buy me something unusual like a length of copper chain or an antique railroad spike or a fallen star. You show me off, say I’m your best girl.
The soil up here tastes like iron and lake water and white pine. Even after you wash up from your digging, I can smell the depths of this place on you, taste it on you, taste it in your mouth, on my lips. At first, I thought the taste was bitter but then I learned different. Some mornings, I wake up and I find your mud-stained fingerprints along the undersides of my breasts, between my thighs. Some mornings, I have stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and I have found your fingerprints on my eyelids. I do not mind. You touch me everywhere.
Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney's (online), Thought Catalog, The Rumpus, and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, a regular contributor to HTMLGIANT, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at http://www.roxanegay.com. Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released in 2011.
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