2013: Trisha M. Cowen: Harmonica Eater (fiction)

Harmonica Eater
Trisha M. Cowen

When Daddy takes the harmonica to his mouth, I think he’s going to eat it. Never did know he could play, and it wasn’t like he was going to tell me neither. I’m peeking at him through the crack in the sap house as he cooks blood up from them maple trees he’s got connected throughout the woods with all of them cables. The woods at the end of winter, well, they look medicinal, each tree attached with rubber IV’s through their brown skin where tiny holes have been poked. It’s like the olden days, like the trees, they being bled to help save them from some internal plague. But, I know better. I’m not prehistoric like those stuffy old inbreds bleeding themselves. The sap-reaping only saves them from becoming firewood with all the logging they’ve been doing in these parts; if a tree don’t put out something worth something, Daddy, he splits it, stacks it, and then slips the pieces into the house until the only trace is dancing in the chimney, calling attention to itself as the color scatters into the sky. He call it “domesticating the tree.” I call it something else.
As he kisses the harmonica, I notice that he’s wearing that gold ring on his finger. Sometimes he wears it, sometimes he don’t. But it don’t really matter much either way; Mama ain’t coming back. He fell asleep too many times on the toilet and in the shower and in the milk house and at her dining room table to want to wear his ring, and when his head landed on his dinner plate one night, splattering the soufflé she made special from her new Betty Crocker, she up and told her favorite cows goodbye, letting them lick her palms long and hard before she left. She didn’t even take anything with her except an old blind barn cat she didn’t want to get scooped up by coyotes, and an old Winchester she had killed her first raccoon with when it snuck into the barn and had Blind Cat’s kittens for lunch. Daddy says he don’t care none, about Mama leaving. Says he should’ve known, getting into it with one of them damn Indians. He says her people were nomads, that it was only a matter of time before she left. She had went to white school and only knew white ways, but he said he could tell the old ways were there lurking like silver ghosts behind her dark eyes, that someday they would dance in mine and I would disappear into my blood and leave him. It was only a matter of time.

When Daddy starts blowing through the holes in the harmonica, I’m startled to hear sound leaking through. With the harmonica up to his lips, he plays a slow, sad drawl that sounds familiar but I don’t know why. I open my eyes wide and try to take the music in. The sound drowns out all other noise. For the first time, I can’t hear the bugs chomping and the mice scampering over the autumn leaves that have just resurfaced from under the last lumps of snow. When I saw the leaves last, I met Grandma Prissy-Face for the first time because Daddy needed money to buy a new shit spreader with cast iron wagon wheels. She lives way down south and it took days to get there by train and Grandma Prissy Face met Daddy and me at the door with a broom and swept him away before he could even ask for money. She pulled me inside by my T-shirt and told Daddy to wait outside and think about his actions like he was just a boy. I couldn’t help but like Prissy Face, then, making Daddy’s face all tight and bent downward.
When I left Grandma Prissy Face’s house that day, Daddy left empty-handed, but not me, no. I left with a heavy book, a holy book, with gold bindings and thirteen years of dust laced across the top. One layer of dust for each year of my life she had said, glaring up at Daddy with her Prissy Face that I tried to imitate in the mirror when I got home so I could use it on other people, make them listen to me like Daddy listened to Prissy Face. She told me I was a sickly child, but that Bible would perk me up just like a newly watered flower. When I got into the truck to go back home, I swept my finger across the dusty Bible and it got me to thinking, about the dust that is, about how things that aren’t there one day find their way here the next.
So I had to have myself some answers. School science book says dust’s made up mostly of skin cells. And, everyone turns to dust when they die. Everyone. Don’t matter where they come from or if they wear a suit jacket to work like Jimmy Herman’s dad. Common house dust’s just foreshadowin’ or that’s what Jimmy says and he’s older so I trust him to tell me what I want after I meet him in the fields when the corn’s tall and the moon’s hiding. He also tells me that I should start shaving my legs, and I tried with Daddy’s razor but I got the corn husk hairs stuck in the blade and I knew the bits wouldn’t never come out and Daddy would know what I had done. And so I did what any girl would do; I put his razor in Buckie’s mouth with a piece of salami around it so when Daddy came home from spreading cow shit in the corner field, he would find Buckie chewing it to bits. Buckie is Daddy’s Rottweiler and he never gets mad at him so I don’t feel too bad about blaming Buck.

The next time I saw Grandma, they had her all cooked up into ashes. Daddy gave me some to let go in the wind. The little pieces got stuck in the cracks of my hands and I gagged. He didn’t cry ‘cause he got his money but then spent it all on that new shit spreader and a big red truck. Don’t know why, though. He don’t go nowhere besides the barn, the fields and the sap house. That night that Grandma died, Daddy fell asleep in his chair with the RCA Victor radio hissing static. The radio stuck out from the brown end-table like an aging tombstone, so with his feet propped up on his dark brown barcalounger—the one I’m not allowed to touch—facing the indoor cemetery, I imagined Daddy as dust like Grandma. I imagined mites crawling around on the back of his barcalounger, eating away at his skin. But, then I imagined what would happen if I climbed into that chair with him and fell asleep, too. Sometimes, I sit up in the hay mow with the newly birthed kittens and pretend to join their litter. I lay there, curled up, watching their chests rise and fall. Sometimes, I close my eyes and nuzzle my face against the whiskers of the mother cat and pretend that it’s facial stubble. I don’t tell Daddy this, but when he finds me up there in the morning, he sometimes makes me kneel on lye until the tears come.
And I’m watching Daddy dance with the harmonica cradled in his hands. And I’m listening, as the sound sifts through them cracks while the sap boils. The faster he plays, the louder the tree-blood joins in, bubbling up and exploding. And Daddy’s looking at the boiler while he plays, but I imagine he’s playing for me. I rub my eyes again and again because I’m still not convinced that he’s not going to eat it. I think, at first, my ears and eyes are deceitful. But no, the sound goes away when I plug my ears and floods back when I don’t. And I think and I think and I think about where I heard that song before and begin to consider that maybe Daddy played it for me once, that it just got lost somewhere in my jumbled up head. And I think and I think and I think and decide that maybe, at one time, he thought me beautiful, like the sap that will turn to sweet, sweet sugar if he just don’t let it boil over.

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