I turned a container of Morton’s over on a slug. The thumb-thick figure writhed and shrank. It moved mere inches before the salt took it. I put the salt back on the top step, crouched down close. In a pool of its own bodily fluids, it lay dead. When poked, it felt like fried fish skin.
I panicked. I thought of its family. With the slamming of the screen door, I called, “Mom, Mom! It won’t move. I think I killed it!” I pulled a chair up so I could reach the glasses, and filled one with water.
I poured the water over him in a thin stream, back and forth, down the length of its body. The salt washed away, but there was no slug resurrection. Mom came out, wiping her hands in her apron, and peered down the steps. “What have you done, now?”
“I put salt on him,” I said, petting the desiccated creature.
“I don’t guess you’ll do that again, will you?” she asked, rubbing her temples.
“No, Mama. Do you think I should bury him?”
“At least get him off the steps,” she said. “And you might want to say a prayer. Ask for forgiveness.”
That night I dreamed I had stigmata. I woke in a sweat, checking my ankles and wrists. I put my knees to carpet. “Lord, forgive me. Lord, please. Please, Lord. Please. I accept Jesus into my heart.” Sometime in the midst of my pleas, I fell asleep with my head against the bed.
Before long, my parents began to fight in spurts of firewater and righteousness.
Before long, he held her against the wall by her throat.
Before long, my brother and I hid behind my bed.
Before long, Dad turned up a bottle of Listerine.
Before long, his mistress came to the front door in a frumpy coat.
Through the divorce, I kept thinking about the slug I had salted.
I was a slug murderer.
I kept at the night prayers. I begged forgiveness, thought maybe my sin had something to do with their divorce, their hatred, the darkness that had moved in and buried itself in our orange shag carpet. Sometimes, I pictured the tiger in the painting above our sofa coming to life, clawing my shoulders, swallowing my face. Every Sunday, when the preacher asked if anyone wanted to come to the front of the church and let the congregation witness their rebirth, I felt I needed to. But Mama was always on my right and my brother on my left. No other kids made the journey to the pulpit; they just bided their time until they were called away for cookies and Kool-Aid. It made no sense to me.
A few years after the divorce, we moved and quit going to church. Mom was busy running an elementary school. My Principal. I stopped praying as much, but I was still terrified. Of myself. Of a new school. Of bad thoughts. Being the Principal’s daughter meant that no one really wanted to be my friend. Kids were too afraid I’d get them in trouble. But there were a few children of teachers. Shawna, daughter of one of the fourth-grade teachers, and I became easy friends.
The first time I spent the night with her, we shared a thin quilt. We gazed up at the top bunk’s warped slats. The bedframe pale and knotted, stray slivers of wood reached out, waiting to stick our fingertips. “Be careful of splinters on that bed, now,” her mom said, handing us two penlights as she tucked us in. The night before Thanksgiving in Union County, North Carolina still held a hum of summer. We were almost too warm under the blanket in our long gowns despite the fact that Shawna’s family only had space heaters. Light cylinders blinked and swirled around the room. Mine landed on a glass sphere hanging from the ceiling. When lit by my struggling double A stream, waves in the glass showed how red lightened, shined, and grew grim all in one artifact, centered over a cardboard dresser. Her father, the glassblower, had made this fragile air container—this catcher of light—this bauble. Shawna and I crossed our ankles over each other like two screwdrivers in a toolbox.
“What are those, anyway?” I asked.
“Witches’ balls. They attract and catch evil spirits,” she said, blinking a light rhythm.
“Are you sure we won’t bother your parents?” I asked, propping myself up on one elbow and loosing my feet from hers. “You don’t really have any walls.”
“When they’re out, they’re out,” she said, focusing her light on the only window in the room. It glared back at us, but we could make out the backbone and scraggy half-limbs of the Pine out back.
“I love this game. See how it looks like dinosaur arms,” Shawna said, moving the light around the perimeter of the window and turning onto her side. Her nightgown came up to her neck in a ruffle and her hair was done up tight in a French braid. I’d just had mine cut into a sort of oblong bowl. A few of the other fourth-grade girls had done it. I also wore a lot of hot pink and occasionally, even donned a skinny blue tie. Fashionable, I wasn’t. Neither was Shawna, but at least she still had her hair.
As we aimed our push-button spotlights, creating momentary still-lifes, I learned to covet. I tried not to think of being a slug murderer anymore. In the brief images of glowing glass and tree silhouettes, desire burned for something yet unnamable.
Eventually, we let the penlights fall to the floor.
I strained my eyes. The room seemed built of a strange sort of rubble—books and clothes, glass pieces, milk crates, sheets hung artfully. I wished my home had been half that interesting—mine was not a space for creative specimens. Mine was a space for the well-behaved, the role model who ate rectangular cafeteria pizza so other students would. Our house was well vacuumed white wall-to-wall. A shining canopy bed in my room.
At home, mom bought our Thanksgiving turkey frozen at the store; while it cooked those mornings, I lounged on our plaid couch, munching on Pillsbury biscuits smeared with Country Crock and watched Donald Duck fumble down 34th Street. In the dark sweet of Shawna’s house, I wanted to puncture my mom’s cans of Campbell’s soup and see her smash homegrown tomatoes into something creamy, acidic and warm rather than watch her run the school I attended. Since she became Principal, we spent so little time at home. Most days, I roamed the school’s halls alone between the last bell and 6 o’clock, when my mom was ready to leave.
A low rumble came from across the bookshelves and sheets.
“Is something wrong with your dad?” I asked, my voice high and sharp in night’s deep blue.
In my head, he’d turned to a six-foot bearded goose. His wing jutted from the covers while Shawna’s mom lay still beside him.
“No, why?” she whispered.
“I just never heard a dad sound like that before.”
“Well, how many dads have you been around, really?” she asked. “We need to go to sleep. They’re going to start Thanksgiving early.”
I was starting to forget what it was like to share a home with a father.
Shawna’s family lived in a makeshift loft apartment over a garage while her father was building a house for them by himself. The kitchen area had a tub sink and a hosepipe running in through the window. A shorter fridge than the one I grew up with held pulpy apple juice, strange containers of nutty, chewy food I couldn’t quite identify. No hotdogs. No Coke. No bacon or lunchmeat I could roll into meat cigars and gulp down in two bites. Her parents had a mattress on the floor with a satin comforter and a lamp draped in scarves. Shades of smoky blue and lavender. Their ramshackle sucked in romance and exhaled freedom. It was its own artifact. Steinbeck’s flophouse, but this time it held a couple and their children rather than a loose conglomeration of miscreants.
Shawna took me into her father’s studio after we ate apples and peanut butter for breakfast.
“Make sure you put on good shoes before we go down,” she said.
“All I brought was my Keds,” I said, looking down at my neon green socks and the purple laces of my worn out tennis shoes.” I was embarrassed. She had black baby doll shoes with a thin strap.
“As long as you don’t wear flip flops or something.”
“I wish I had some like yours,” I said, tying second knots in my bows.
We walked down the outdoor steps.
Shawna knocked on the window. In his sleeveless shirt and drawstring pants, her dad leaned over to lift the garage door. His muscled arm was smudged black, but beneath the coating, I could see a few raised, toothy scars that looked like they’d been formed by human hands. His salt and pepper beard was longer than any other I’d ever seen. I wanted to touch the hairs. He smelled of sweat and imagination.
There were three furnaces. He shot puffs of air through a blowpipe. The glass, at first almost white, cooled to blood orange. I understood to touch would bring a kind of pain only felt in my dreams when demons grabbed and chewed my feet, but my fingers flicked in their anxious wanting.
The birth of an artifact left an afterimage.
I would blink for years.
Purple and teal glass bubbles hung in groups of four to seven at every window. I stared at the glass hairs inside some of them, and wished with all the might of a lonely girl, to touch them. I wondered if they’d shatter. I thought of fried fish skin, bathing the slug, putting him in a paper box, burying him beneath a Tulip tree.
Shawna grew bored. “Let’s go out to our fort,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “When’s your dad going to kill the bird?” I had been wondering where it was all morning.
“Soon,” she said. “Mama’s gotta get it cleaned and in the stove.” They had a woodstove in the corner of their living area upstairs. I had no idea how it worked and it sat like a hulking beast that cooked up the likes of Hansel and Gretel.
“Can we watch?” I asked, scratching at a rogue paint splatter on the wall.
“I guess,” she said. “But I don’t see why you’d want to. Daddy? When you gonna hang up the turkey?”
He lifted his mask. “I reckon I better get to it.”
Out on the picnic table, we clapped rhymes until our hands turned pink and stiff. Shawna’s dad came out, still in his glass-blowing apron, holding the turkey by its feet. The gobble didn’t sound like I expected. The word didn’t fit the noise. The turkey let out short high-pitched squeaks as he tied it to a low limb. In his other hand, he held a thin, pointed blade. He quieted the bird, stroking its head. He spoke to the bird and slit its throat. It flapped at first but within a minute or so, its movements slowed. And there I was, a witness to death again and all I could think was how I wanted to make things like this man. I wanted to stand in a hot studio, dirty and mind-clouded and aloof. In the whipping wind of Thanksgiving Day, as I watched the steam rise from the turkey’s blood, I knew what I wanted was not a father—what I wanted was art. In that afterimage of death and glass baubles, I learned to own my movements, to pour salt, to tend and destroy.
Beth Gilstrap earned her MFA in Fiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Stone Highway Review, Blue Fifth Review, The Minnesota Review and Noctua Review. This spring she will be one of two writers-in-residence at The Cabin at Shotpouch Creek through the generous support of Oregon State University.