The Animal Women (Part 1)
By Alix E. Harrow
12 January 2015
Part 1 of 2
She found the animal women in March of 1968 on the day the Little Sandy thawed, which was the same day Mrs. Whittson made her read in front of the entire sixth grade class. The words on the page piled up like dogs fighting in her throat. Candis rolled them in her mouth, syllable by syllable: And if you wrong us, shall we not re-venge? But nothing came out, and Mrs. Whittson laughed with everyone else.
After school, she took her Polaroid Swinger and left the house without speaking to her mother and father or her sister. She shouldn’t even have to read some dumb play that was supposedly a comedy but wasn’t funny at all. She was going to be a photographer, a photojournalist, and her snarled-up words wouldn’t matter when she was world famous, hunkered in the jungles capturing the gritty realities of war. It had been Eddie Adam’s photo showing the execution of a Vietnamese prisoner that first inspired her to beg for a camera. The image had spoken so clearly, so wordlessly—the stringy way the general’s muscles wove around his arm, the way you knew it was already over and the trigger was already pulled.
Candis stumped her way to the Little Sandy wearing too-big rubber boots that clunked and humped against her bare feet. She pointed the Polaroid at pale green fiddleheads worming up through the leaves and salamanders curled like red commas, mentally narrating National Geographic captions for her award-winning photos. She didn’t press the plastic button. At home, her sister would be wearing the yellow A-line skirt she had sewn from a pattern book because her boyfriend Orrin was coming over for supper. Candis didn't like him or the heavy cologne reek that followed him to cover up the stink of pig shit.
A bird flitted along the low branches near the creek. It was only a green heron, common as dirt, but she liked the way it dipped and swept at the water. The curve of its beak seemed to smile wryly at her. It turned up a narrower creek, shallow and unnamed. Candis followed it. She was distracted by a delicate ring of spring beauties and crouched to frame them in her lens.
As she stood and her wet hem slapped the backs of her legs, something like dizziness swept over her. She didn’t know, suddenly, whether she’d been walking upstream or downstream. She stumbled into the woods. The beeches seemed more muscly and white, and honey locusts caught at her coat sleeves.
She emerged onto a broad meadow caught in the early spring colors of gray and anxious green. At the very edge of the field there was a strange, heaving kind of cabin with too many chimneys and porches and corners. It looked as though several very venerable cabins had gathered together for a conference on termites and moss and had never quite drifted apart again. She stepped through the laid-over grasses towards the house and climbed onto the woodpile to peer through the wavy glass of a window.
A woman was standing at a kitchen counter, elbow-deep in a mound of swollen dough. Her skin was a rich color like old butter or buckskin, her hair a dark fist of coal at her neck. Perhaps it was the distortion of the glass, but her neck seemed impossibly long, like the silhouettes of women in fashion magazines. Candis thought she had never seen anything more beautiful, as if the cheery drawings of Sacagawea in her textbook had sprung to life. She raised her Polaroid and pressed it against the glass. The woman’s head flicked around and perfect stillness fell over her. Muscles stood ridged and taught in her neck. Tiny letters spelled “NO” in the Polaroid’s viewfinder, telling Candis there wasn’t enough light. She pressed the button.
“Girl,” said a voice behind her. Candis wobbled on the woodpile. There was a woman wearing a green print dress, looking at Candis with her head tilted queerly to one side. Her skin shimmered greenish-black, like wet feathers. She was darker than any colored person Candis had ever seen, including Samuel Bell, the boy who drove the timber truck.
The Polaroid buzzed and rolled out a black square.
“Are you hungry?”
Candis felt suddenly very small, a lost girl with skinny scabbed knees and a plastic camera thumping on her bony chest. She thought of the trouble she’d be in if she ate at a stranger’s house. Then she thought of Flora’s yellow skirt and Orrin’s cologne. She nodded.
The woman smiled, wry and white. “Then come eat with us.”
She brought Candis into the house, sat her down at a long wooden table and left. Candis was wondering where her husband was, and if she had any children, and why they didn’t go to Greenup County public school with her, when the five women came light-footed into the room.
Their faces were very different from each other, in five different shades of deerhide and slate and cream, and their clothes had the mismatched look that came from Church giveaway bags. They passed around six bowls of red beans and sat in silence, watching her.
The woman in the green dress tilted her head again, and said, “My name’s Vira.”
The woman to her left—heavy, slope-shouldered, black—was Ursa. Odil was the doe-skinned woman from the kitchen, seated beside the lithe and tawny Lyna. Vivan ran pale fingers through hair the color of a winter fox. Candis stirred her beans with a silver spoon and looked at the table.
“What’s your name?” asked Lyna.
She felt the sound of her own name growing tangled in her head. She looked up at Vivian, the only white lady in this strange, dark house, and said it quickly before it got too lost. “Candy. Candis. Candy.”
“I didn’t ask your name, child,” drawled Vivian. Some of the women laughed, and it sounded like wildcats yowling and herons kuk-kukking. Candis thought maybe she shouldn’t have gone into this house of five women and eaten their food.
Then Vira seemed to take pity on her and asked to see the picture she’d taken through the window. Candis took the little black square out of her pocket and laid it on the table. She peeled the film off the top and stared down at the milky surface. She felt them all watching her and waiting with the special patience of animals and old people. A picture began to bloom through the glossy mist: the blurred shadow of a woman in black and white, distorted by the dimness. Even wavering, you could see the strangeness of the woman’s long neck and the overlarge gleam of her eyes in the sunset. She was a doe in the long moments before she flips her white tail in fear.
Odil leaned over to look at herself. She smiled. “It’s very good, Candis.” No one had ever looked at one of Candis’s pictures and thought it was good; they only wanted to see their own faces printed out in gray and white, and marvel at the little whirrs and clicks of the Polaroid.
Vira said, “It’s time for you to head home, Candis. But you’re welcome to return.” Candis wanted very badly to ask them why she could come back, and who they were, and why Odil liked her picture, but the words howled just out of reach.
“Are you wondering why?” Candis nodded. “Perhaps because it’s lonely out here. And perhaps because we were all like you, once.”
“Y-young?” Candis asked.
“Voiceless,” Vira answered.
And then they gave her a dripping chunk of honeycomb and a musty jacket. They pointed her out along their dirt drive to the main road. She walked home with Orion and the Pleiades wheeling overhead and the taste of wild honey on her tongue.
Candis returned to visit the animal women many times after that.
It was several weeks later, as the redbuds were blushing and all the mothers were collecting dogwood branches to ward off the spring fleas, that a black man was shot and killed in his hotel room in Tennessee. Candis listened to the news with Flora beside her on the sagging couch. They knew from the urgency of the newscasters that it was an event that had weight in the world, but they also knew that weighty events did not mean much to them in their white clapboard house with its leaky roof and broken windows covered over with floral sheets. They turned the radio off and Flora condescended to cut out pictures from her fashion magazine and let Candis order and re-order them on the floor.
The next morning she heard nothing of the news but a low hum in the town. Neighbor ladies and their bare-footed children stood along the wet roads as they always did, shaking their heads at each other and saying, Well, these things did happen, didn’t they. When a person like that grew too tall, when their voices boomed out from the big cities of the nation and echoed into every hollow and hilled place—when a person did things too quickly, when they upset the order and peace of the world and ripped at the nation’s half-rotted roots—well, didn’t these things just happen. It wasn’t right, but still. It was bound to happen. Candis imagined that it was. The president had declared a national day of mourning, but the town’s flags still hung in damp folds at the tops of their poles.
On Friday after school Candis found her father leaning on the cedar railing of their porch, waiting. “Candy. Where you headed in such a hurry, child?” He wasn’t working much this spring. He was often home early, complaining that the people out West were hogging the timber market and worrying at his bad knee. Candis shrugged, the tiny points of her shoulders poking through her wide-necked blouse.
“Are you going out to that house full of Negro women, past Little Sandy?”
She looked at his fat knuckles around the rail, crushed and flattened by a hundred logs. She wanted to tell him they weren’t all Negro ladies—there was the fox-haired lady and Odil who looked like Sacagawea—but she didn’t think he’d like it much. She nodded.
“Well, not this evening you’re not. Not for a good while.”
“Yes I am,” she said, so fast and loud that the words came out all in the right order.
Her father threw his newspaper down on the dirty porch boards and leaned toward her. The front page had a picture of some great city filled with smoke and glass and black men with hate in their jaws.
“They’re all run mad, Candy, all of them. They’re killing little blonde girls like you and burning their homes down around them. They’re turning into animals.” He attempted a consoling look. “I’m sure they treat you just like a little princess right now, but the truth is even the women can’t be trusted these days. All run mad.”
She smiled at her father and touched his hand to let him know that she loved him and would do as he said. If she didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t really a lie.
Before dawn the next morning she packed her camera and stolen corn muffins into a coffee can and slipped away with her flannel night dress flapping around her boots. When she turned down the long drive through the meadow, dawn was seeping over the high edge of the hill. The windows of the cabin were dark and no smoke rose from their kitchen, so Candis waited on the porch and pointed her camera in aimless arcs. She tilted the lens down to the horizon and saw dim, lithe things moving at the edge of the woods. She held her breath.
They came, five of them, from the deepest black places in the woods. They were too far away for Candis to see them clearly, but she thought their flesh roiled strangely and their hair ran roughly down their backs. They moved crouched and muscled, light and fluttering, neat-footed. They were the shape of teeth and fur and wild things slinking at the ragged margins of the world.
Real sunlight emerged and the frosted grasses breathed steam. The figures in the woods stepped into the light and then they were only five women after all. They stood in a rough line, naked, their eyes fixed on Candis and her plastic camera. She pushed the button.
The women came toward her over the long grass as though they were relearning the terrible falling-and-balancing motions of human legs. Candis pulled the black film away and set the picture delicately on her knee. When she looked up the women were flowing around her like a dark wave into the house. The reemerged with robes and coats pulled awkwardly around their bodies.
Candis had been practicing syllables to herself. “My daddy told me not to come. Because of those colored people, in the cities. That. They run mad, like animals.” She smiled staunchly up at them. “But I came. Anyhow. Y-you’re not like that.” She stuttered at the end, as the faces around her went still.
Mild Odil had hot coals for eyes. “We’ve been called animals for a long time, little white girl, and been used as such. But I’d be more careful who you call an animal.”
“I—didn’t—Why?” Candis asked.
“Because very rarely, you might be right,” answered Lyna, smiling to reveal teeth much too numerous and sharp.
Candis looked away, found Vivian’s eyes. “If you think I’m on your side, sweetheart, you haven’t been paying attention,” said Vivian. She leaned against Vira’s bent back and slipped a pale arm around her waist.
“We have never been the animals, Candis,” said Vira. Her eyes were old and tired and, Candis thought, hurt. “Go home.”
Candis scrambled up and away. When she was safely around the bend of their long road, snuffling with self-pity, she took the curling picture out of the coffee tin and looked at it. The picture showed five women standing naked and feral with dawn mist coiling around them. Their bodies were right-shaped but still somehow eerie, as though the edges of them might blur back into the woods and the night. It was the most beautiful picture Candis had ever taken. She tucked it into her coat above her heart.
Candis’s life shrank back down to its former dimensions of schoolwork and biscuits and molasses. Her father wore a pleased, well-that’s-the-end-of-that expression, but her mother watched her more cannily. Spring was expiring in its final hot bloom, and the luna moths were fluttering at the screens with ghost wings, but Candis had retreated upstairs
She flipped page by page through her father’s discarded Lexington Heralds and Courier-Journals. She cut out every picture of the madness in the cities. Young white people sitting in the middle of the street wearing raggedy blue jeans, black men with their fists in the air, pretty young ladies with venomous eyes and poster-boards. She studied their grainy faces as though they held clues to unsolved crimes, and thought: who are the animals?
By the end of May she had stopped looking. Mrs. Whittson had grown beady-eyed, like a sergeant sensing insubordination in her troops. On the very last day of school, she hauled Candis to the front and said that, seeing as how she’d had three months to practice it, her Shakespeare was probably coming along fine, and why didn’t she share it? Candis didn’t know if standing hate-filled and sweaty was supposed to teach her how to straighten her words out, but it didn’t. The vill-ai-ny you teach me, I will ex-e-cute. Everyone laughed fondly at the old joke of her silence.
But then it was over and June stretched out gold and green before her, even if she couldn’t return to the house in the meadow, where beautiful and strange things happened in the quiet, where her Polaroid could capture something like magic.
An empty lumber truck was sitting in the drive when Candis got home. Orrin and her father sat on the porch, wide-kneed, while Samuel Bell stood politely on the steps and nodded. Sam drove the company truck and picked their father up for work some days. Candis had avoided him for months because Flora had asked her to name the handsomest boy in Greenup County and she’d said “Samuel Bell” faster than a Jeopardy! contestant. Flora had found this information most profitable.
Orrin said something to her father about how we wouldn’t truck with that kind of shit in Kentucky, waving a newspaper. Her father agreed that we sure wouldn’t. Sam looked at the ground.
Candis was almost in view when her father said, “Like those unnatural women up the road, trying to get at Candy I swear they are. We don’t need any of that around here. Need more like our Sam-bo here, right?” Candis slipped behind the truck, out of sight.
She heard Sam say, “Yes, sir. Well, I’ve got to get home. Evening.” His boots crunched towards her.
He rounded the corner to find Candis half-crouched and round-eyed. She wondered if people could spontaneously combust from embarrassment.
“Hello, Candis,” he said, as if feral girls hid behind his wheel well every day and it was a nuisance but he was a tolerant man. He hefted himself into the driver’s seat and gave her a little nod.
“W-wait.” Sam waited, while Candis drowned in her own heaving, rushing words. “The women. D-d-do—”
Sam looked at the sawdust-strewn dashboard. “I don’t know much about those ladies on the other side of the Little Sandy, if that’s what you’re asking.” Candis nodded. “My Granny says the first of ‘em showed up when she was a girl, but Granny remembers a lot of things aren’t true.”
He looked down at her. “She used to tell me to stay away from them, that those ladies didn’t know what was good for them. She said we each have to take the trials the Lord sets us and not try to change them or run away.” He turned the key and the diesel rumbled to life. He smiled a crooked smile with something reckless tucked in the corners. “But can I tell you a secret? I don’t know if I believe that anymore.”
The truck glugged up the drive and Candis attempted a casual, I-just-got-here stroll towards the house. Orrin leered as she slid the rumpled newspaper off the railing and stole upstairs with it.
The words in their neat columns said more of the same things they always said, except it was about West Louisville instead of Detroit or Chicago or D.C. Dangerous mob of colored people—senseless violence—attacked officers of the law—subdued by morning. But the picture this time was different. There were no young black men with white teeth and bare shoulders. There were only white men with rifles and heavy boots and helmets, walking in a line down an empty street. Their eyes gleamed gray and mad, like wolves on tight leashes.
And Candis knew then she’d been looking into the wrong faces in the newspapers.
She clawed all her cut-out pictures from under her bed and stuffed them into her coffee can. She added the very last picture she had taken, of the women in the meadow at dawn, and braided her greasy hair. She ran, bare feet slapping down the stairs.
“What’s your hurry, Candy?” Orrin sat alone in the kitchen, now. The line of dark grime circled his shirt collar like a rope. She kept walking.
“Candy, it’s been awful nice having you here with the family in the evenings. Where you headed to?”
He said her name again and clamped his sweaty hand around her wrist. The cologne-and-shit smell of him covered her and the coffee can clanged to the floor. All her pictures, her clues, spilled out onto the floorboards. She yanked herself away and scraped the clippings towards her, looking for the only one that mattered—and then she saw it, in Orrin’s hand.
Orrin’s lazing expression left him. Something hard and hot-edged moved under the muscles of his face. It was the same way he looked at Candis’s sister when she wore her yellow skirt. It was the terrible, avaricious needing of a hound on a scent, pulling until the collar digs into his throat.
Candis grabbed the picture and ran, listening over the sound of her own pulse for the whine of hinges behind her. There was nothing.
She didn’t run all the way to the meadow, but her heart thump-thumped in her chest and sweat ran down her back. She knocked at the low door and it opened, a warm smell of nests and animal dens coming out at her.
Odil stood very still, a queen regarding a supplicant. All of Candis’s careful words ran wild in her throat. The syllables jumped and clawed at each other. I’m so so-rry, so-rry, I don’t know what you are but there are sides and I am on yours. I know now what skin an an-i-mal wears and it is not your skin.
“I—I’m. Didn’t—please,” she said. The other women had gathered around Odil’s back. But they were not Mrs. Whittson. They didn’t need it all said in straight black and white lines. They opened the door wider and let her inside.
Read part 2 here