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Spring/Summer 2001Volume II Issue II


portal to our archives

from the editors

failbetter presents

who we are & how to submit


Pamela Ryder is a nurse practitioner in Bellevue Hospital, New York City.

Her short stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Black Warrior Review, Shenandoah, and Conjunctions: American Fiction States of the Art.






Pamela Ryder


The daughter notes how the leaves droop, the way the stems bend and wilt: hollyhocks, hydrangea, blue meadow rue. The delphiniums are long gone. The roses--going. The horse chestnut lost its leaves a season early. The square that once was lawn has long since turned to thatch.

The daughter hands her mother the hose. "Aim," she tells the mother. "Shoot for the roots." But there is little that the mother can do: wash a dish, wipe a counter, run the boy his evening bath but never let the water run. House rules now apply with the mother newly in the house: no sweets for the boy before dinner, no bad grammar, no taking out the car.

"This heat will kill me", says the mother with her finger on the trigger. "A person could be six feet under," she says. "At my age, a person could be dead."

Deep in the garage, the shovels are a jumble. The nuts are greased and dusted tight to bolts. The drill bits are brittle. The screws are jarred. The spade and the claw are clumped with last summer's mud. This year's husband is in there somewhere, sorting through the fishing gear and searching for a creel. The hedge clipper is crusted with cuttings. The pick-ax is flaking with rust. The daughter chips a hole in the rock-hard yard and drops the car-keys in.

"I'm not a prisoner," says the mother. "Don't think for a minute I've got no place to go."

"Haven't", says the daughter. "And spare me the double negatives." She fixes her grip on the pick-ax handle, feels the heft of the weight. She approximates height of the mother, establishes the arc of the swing and imagines where the point will hit. Predictions are grim. Restrictions temporarily lift: kiddy pools permitted even Mondays, sprinklers allowed odd Saturdays, hand held irrigation alternate Sundays. Sermons are heard. Praying for rain is routinely the topic. The preacher was seen sneaking a drink to peonies wilting in a window box. Warnings have been issued. Penalties are harsh. A summons was slipped in with the parish mail. Periodically the sky will darken. Sometimes the clouds will gather. Unfortunately, the ceiling always lifts. What sounded like a splat of rain was heard one morning early, but it was just the mailman spitting in the dust.

"Neither rain nor hail nor dew at night," says the mother.

"Too hot for hail", the daughter says, dragging the hose. She turns the faucet up for something between a gush and a trickle. The burnt leaves crackle. The seared grass shrivels. The soil seems to hiss. But the earth has made itself a rock and wards off the cure. "Spite," says the daughter, as the stream just puddles in the gutter. A panting sparrow swings on a withered petiole. A little river fills the street.

"It don't matter," says the mother. "Everything's dry as a dead dog's bone."

"Doesn't," says the daughter. "And, please," she says, "don't talk at all if you must talk like a hick."

Here comes the other daughter, sister to the other. Older, she is, and more dried up, sauntering up the drive. She lives alone and motherless. Her heart is light because of it, though full of grit. "Do I smell rain?" she says, sniffing. "Or is that dust?"

"Ashes to ashes," says the mother. "Dead as a herring. Dead as a duck."

"If you ask me," says the older daughter, "we'll soon be out on street corners, begging for a drink."

"We should all be on our knees," says the mother.

"And praying for a deluge," says the older daughter. "At this rate we'll be drinking up the sea."

"See?" says the mother.

"Get in the house," says younger daughter.

"Make me," says the mother.


Inside the house, the ark is at the dock. The sea is crepe, furrowed and running a water-based blue, lightly salted where the boy has been sprinkling. Dishtowel clouds have been clustered and hung. Paint has been applied in shades of gray. The dove and the sprig are poised. Noah is positioned beside the hatch, staff raised for keeping count. The boy is busy boarding animals two by two: bears, horses, monkeys, ducks. Flamingos, tigers, flying foxes are stepping up the ramp. "Lovely," says the mother, the grandmother to the boy, the mother of the daughters. "Except that there were no flamingos way back then."

"Use your imagination, Grandmama," says the boy.

"Don't sass," the mother says.

Down at the lake, the scum has started to stink. The ducks step hotfooted on the rocks, painted with algae and too parched to quack. The fish are seared, bellies silvered. Fins surface in the smothering mud, circling and plowing the silt. On the dock sits this summer's husband, polishing lures and detangling the tackle. He is sleepy with the heat and recounting a recent bout of pillow talk. "Two weeks," said the younger daughter, the mother of the boy, estimating the duration: this resettling of the mother.

"Two weeks," she had said, setting down his favorite dish, in lieu of something fishy.

"Perhaps three," she had said, presenting something baked, by way of bait.

"A month or so, but nothing more," she had promised, "and how about some pie?"

But now the fruit is shriveled. The birds have pecked the peaches from the trees. The cherries are only their stones. The lake bed is rock. The bottom is cracked, slick with pools of mud, which--if one would step--would pull and clutch. The population of ducklings is recently diminished. The mother duck has begun a premature molt.

"It's too much, I tell you," says the younger daughter. "I'm pulling out my hair, at the end of my rope."

"You said you'd take her," says the older daughter, her mouth gone dry, but spitting some of her grit. "You said you'd keep her for a spell."

"A spell," the younger daughter says. "Seems like forty days and forty nights."

Nearby, something drums from a treetop: a dying locust, a dog-faced cicada, a woodpecker boring its final hole?

"Listen", says the older daughter. "That," she says. "I could swear that was thunder."

"A boat, and nothing but, " says the younger daughter. "Oars on aluminum. Up the creek without a cloud in the sky."

The boat is beached. The husband is grim-faced and busy, sitting at the stern. He is greasing a reel. He is pinching a sinker.

The daughters are in the house supervising a sailing, the ark's departure. "A seer," says the older daughter, aunt to the boy. "A shaker, that old Noah", she says. "An expert at rocking the boat."

"Make him sit down," says the boy in his sailor's hat, painting on a white cap and bolt from the blue. The older daughter sees the zebras, the family of elephants trunk to tail, the troupe of possums toddling and pocketed; the bat, the wolf, the weasel; the terrapin tilting beneath a wave.

"Pathetic," says the older daughter. "Destruction of habitats, fire in the rain forest, drought right here in your own back yard."

"I could cut back on baths," says the boy, slipping a stingray overboard, sliding a skate into the crepe hung sea.

The boy sets Mrs. Noah peeking though a porthole. "Cute," says the mother of the daughters, the grandmama, looking on. "Except it's much too hot in steerage for a poor old lady. A trip like that would do her in."

"Now there's a thought," says the younger daughter. "Deep sixed, buried at sea."

The boy perches a flamingo upon the bow.

"Lovely," says the older daughter, aunt to the boy. "Except that there will soon be no flamingos left to flap around."

"Save it," says the boy.


Bedtime, and the younger daughter--the mother of the boy--is kneeling with an ear to the bedroom door. Inside sits the boy, spilling the milk, bathed and brushed for a dog-eared story.

"Tell me about the turtle, Grandmama," says the boy, still untucked and upright.

"Stuck in a bathtub," says the mother. "Land locked. Lonely for its home."

"Did it get to its home, Grandmama?" says the boy,

"Hit by a truck on its way to the sea," she says and smoothes the spread. "Flat as a pancake," she says and she fluffs a pillow.

"Please!" calls the younger daughter through the key hole. "Enough!" she says, knee sore from trying to listen.

"And so," says the grandmama, somewhat shouting now in the direction of the door, "they lived happily ever after."

"What's the moral of the story, Grandmama?" says the boy.

"Shh," she says, tucking the covers. "Loose lips sink ships."


Out on the dock sits this season's husband. He is baiting the hook, dropping a line. "Darling," he has written on the note to be arriving soon, "gone fishing. Don't wait up."

Out on the square that used to be lawn stand the two daughters of the mother--the older and the younger--looking at the sky. The sun is at a slant, starting to set. The boat is tilting on the rocks. The ducks roost tuck-billed on the beach. Just above the tree line, along the horizon, the light burns through the last of the leaves.

"Look", says the older daughter, the one withering. "Wasn't that lightning?"

"Sparks, most likely," says the younger daughter. "Could be cinders."

"But, listen," says the older daughter. "Wasn't that a rumble?"

"I doubt it," says the younger daughter. "More like a rattle."

"Done for," calls the mother, peeking from the upstairs window. "Curtains," she says.

The drapes are drawn. The window darkens. The smell of muck lifts from the lake bottom. Here and there the puddles of black glint with the last of the sun.

Something that should be wetter slithers.

"Do I hear a rustle?" says the older daughter. "The leaves stirring?"

"More like a hissing," says the younger daughter. "Snakes in the mud."

Something close by flutters upward.

"I'd say that was a breeze," says the older daughter. "Wind, possibly. A change in the weather."

"Updraft," says the younger daughter. "Spontaneous combustion."

The older daughter puts her hand to her forehead--a brim against the fire of the setting sun. "But that," she says, looking past the line of flame. "Over there," she says, seeing where the sky is sea-bottom black, all silt and billowing. "If you ask me, I'd say over there looks darker."

She points past the blaze to what is blowing, rising above the trees. "If you ask me," she says, watching where the sky is churning with soot, merging with the dusk, "Over there it's beginning to cloud up."

2001 by Pamela Ryder