She begins in the pond at the edge of Tom Hatcher’s cornfield, where the stalks drag needy fingers across a summer moon. She digs one toe, slender and clear as glass, into the murky bottom and begins to spin. Round and round. Faster and faster. Until sludge climbs up her body and binds to the translucent armature of her calves and thighs. When the mud covers her fully, she heaves herself out of the water and onto the shore.
Elodia closes her eyes.
She remembers the photograph in Tom’s kitchen. The farmhouse with its slanted walls and bowing roof. His wife, wrinkled and smiling in front of it. Pale hair. Blue gingham dress clinging to sagging breasts and a fleshy, dimpled waist. Looking loved and happy and wanted.
Elodia scoops mud from the lip of the pond and begins to sculpt that smile and those breasts onto herself. The extra weight trembles her delicate body as she stands.
Her sister, Thalia, would have laughed if she saw her then, alone and draped in mud. Thalia doesn’t understand. Her world is quick death and clean water. She lures velvet skinned boys into the deep of her lake. The young ones. The beautiful ones. The ones who walk barefoot and alone in moonlight. Thalia calls to them, and they paddle, unthinking, out to meet her. “Who are you?” they ask. Thalia only laughs and winds around them, warm and slippery and sweet. She teases them into confused pleasure, lust fast and fragile as moth wings. She hooks her fingers into them. She drags them down. She holds them beneath the water until the thrashing finally stops and they are silent and still.
But Elodia has always been a murky thing, and her feet are mud heavy as she walks through the cornfield toward Tom Hatcher’s farmhouse.
* * *
Tom Hatcher doesn’t believe in ghosts. He believes in living things. In growing things. But one evening in July, six months after his Meredith has passed, he thinks he sees her in the pond at the edge of his cornfield.
It’s the damn cough that forces him to stop. That heavy dampness in his chest that won’t quite dry out, that jitters him out of his sleep and follows him like a ragged shadow wherever he goes. If his Meredith were there, she’d hold his hand as he tried to squeeze oxygen into his lungs. She’d wrap her arms around his shoulders when that shadow grew teeth and loomed beside him and murmured “not long now not long now.”
He is panting and wiping cold sweat from his lip when he sees the movement in the pond. A strange ripple shudders through the center of the water. And there! A girl-shaped something, slender and clear as glass, skims the surface.
He calls, “Hello?”
But nobody answers.
He hobbles to the pond to find her, but the glass girl is nowhere to be seen.
Meredith had loved to swim when she was young. Tom still remembers the way she dove, supple and smiling, into the water. Sunburned skin. Long limbs. Gentle laughter.
That night, Tom dreams of his dead wife. Meredith is a freckled Esther Williams in a turquoise pool, splashing and laughing and darting away quick as a minnow. He can’t catch her, but he falls in love with the curve of her bare shoulder, the gentle slope of her back, the fine, red plump of her lower lip.
The next morning, cough lurking in his chest, Tom opens the screen door and sees muddy footprints leading away from the farmhouse.
He follows them to the pond.
Tom Hatcher doesn’t believe in ghosts, but tonight he sits in the kitchen beneath the photograph of Meredith, the one taken before the cancer began creeping into her bones, and he waits for her to reappear, young and beautiful, hair damp from swimming. Her freckles will crinkle when she smiles and she will gather him against her breast, cool and lovely as water.
* * *
It is midnight when Elodia emerges from the cornfield and lumbers through the abandoned marigolds to the farmhouse. There, on the other side of the screen door, she sees Tom hunched at the kitchen table, fingers steepled beneath an unshaven chin. Wallpaper peels behind him, yellow flowers on nicotined paisley. A mountain of dishes slumps in the sink. Above him, in her blue gingham dress, is the photo of his wife, a snapshot of flesh and blood that never needed mud to be whole or beautiful.
“Hello,” Elodia says.
Tom turns, startled, breath hitching at the sight of her, his fingers curled tight around the edge of the table, wheezing and ragged as his lungs snatch at the air.
Elodia can hear the water inside him. The slow wet smother. The inescapable flood.
As he stands, she waits for the inevitable question, but when Tom is finally able to speak, he doesn’t ask “Who are you?” Instead, he slowly crosses the kitchen. He opens the screen door like a secret, the kitchen light feathering the remains of his hair. “Oh, I knew you would come,” he says, his voice damp and rusting, his face soft as he reaches, trembling, toward her and caresses her cheek.
Elodia closes her eyes. She imagines tender hands sinking through the muddy shell separating them, his touch heavy as water, gentle as air. She imagines a life of sunlight and gingham dresses. Hazy mornings in an ancient and rumpled bed. A familiar hand folded over her wilted breast. Bodies grown old together, entwined and intimate as roots.
Elodia smiles like she imagines a wife might smile.
She pretends her heart isn’t aching as she folds her arms around Tom’s shoulders and lowers him gingerly to the kitchen floor.
She pretends the love in his eyes is for her as his breath withers, as his heart slows, as the sun rises, as the shadows lengthen, as she whispers, “Not long now.”
© 2017, Lora Gray