To the Bottleneck Fiction

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Erin Russell

To the Bottleneck Fiction



Mama, you are the dust motes in the shafts of light that pour in from my window: there are bars there, but they do not keep you away. You are the shafts of light, Mama. You are the bars.
 When your family moved from the old country to this place, this land of dust, no trees and blood-striated cliffs—this place when you were so very small—were you afraid? Did the mummified landscape, the big Technicolor-blue sky barrel down on your slight frame like it did on mine? All those Paleolithic bones, smashed-in-buffalo heads, sharp arrow flints like teeth under your heel? I’ve never seen you afraid of anything, Mama. You went out of our tiny shack in the coulee every morning and you conquered everything and everyone. Through sheer concentration of light, if need be. Queen of Wands, Five of Cups, the Hermit. A magnifying glass angled under the hot prairie sun, you burned your way through every obstacle, every person who stood in your way.
 They’ll come and take me away, Mama, take my daughters away. Because I am too quiet. Too calm. And you, Mama—you who were the crackling ravaging storm of dust and fire, loud and yowling like the burning oil that lay beneath the soil of those badlands, you they left alone. And me alone-side you, alongside you, the minute specter: the Three of Swords, the Few Coins, the Tower with face turned down.
 The day the lean longshanks collector man came to our tiny shack in the coulee, knocking with an arm twice as long as any should be. That high-voiced, one-red-eyed, beanstalk-crazy man: “You open up, Ma’am. I know you’re in there. I don’t aim to scare your little girl but I ain’t leavin’ till you pay up.” His wide leftover-giant knuckles rapping loud against the thin panel: “Ya gotta open up sometime, Ma’am.” My muscles armoring at the sound, tight and wiry under a threadbare dress. The man’s voice growing shriller: “Ya gotta come out soon you crazy p . . . piece of—. There’s bills that gotta be paid, you c . . . cr—. Ma’am.
 You made a game of it, you did, Mama. Your smile was flushed and bright under your rounded cheeks as you took my thin hand and led me away to the kitchen. Your eyes made half-moons and glittered: unstable, scraped of color, hieratic. You took an old stack of newspapers and piled them in a high column in the furthest corner. You told me it was Razorback Mountain and quick now, I had to climb on up! And oh, the job it would be! And oh, the strength it would take! Was I strong enough? Yes, Mama, yes, I could be all the strong you wanted.
 You swung me up, onto the top—told me I had to stay there where the air was thin so I could work on my lung capacity. Every true mountaineer did it, you said: they test and try and train up their lungs where the air is thin, so they can climb the biggest peaks later—mountaintop places where the air is so empty of itself it’s like breathing single atoms through a sliver straw.
 I sat on that mountaintop so long that the clock chimed the half hour . . . and chimed again, Mama—my mouth making the tiny o of a tiny straw, my breathing shallow. My dress hiked up, my thighs bare—the newspapers painting me with ink-pictures of dinosaur digs in Drumheller or of the Maurice Richard hockey people in those fights in the French parts. I stayed there a good long time, keeping self, papers, stories in place, just like you told me to.
 You had gone off, out the kitchen, round the tight hallway with its rail track of missing floorboards, and back to the front door. I’d heard the panel open: heard his heavy boots moving at irregular pace over the dirty unfinished floor. The hallway led also to our bedroom. I waited, Mama, to hear the front door open and close again, with Beanstalk Man on the other side. I waited and waited and still I didn’t hear no creaking, closing door.
 I was there still when the prairie dogs began whistling across the coulee outside our window. Only then I crept off my newsprint mountain, my bum sliding with the top half of the pile in an avalanche of headlines and baby formula advertisements. I tiptoed down the bare wooden floor, my toes making abrupt tiny animal prints in the dust. The bedroom door was open. You straddled Beanstalk Man, his lanky white form limp beneath you—and you barebacked, dark curls spilling down, were more beautiful than any woman of the cards. The muscles lining your shoulder blades gliding like silent elk through the plains under a tight clear moon. The light through the window catching dark gold lowlights in your hair. The dust motes were there then: softening the frame, the concise blades—your hard beauty. My mouth opened into another little o. Three of Swords, Eight of Pentacles, Knight of Wands. I made no sound. When the man finally tiptoed out of the house, the big prairie sky had gone dark and the family bills were settled. Did I say tiptoed?
 I had long since crawled back up the half-collapsed Razorback pile where torn newspaper bits now jutted out at strange angles. This time I had brought my Lincoln Logs set—sat fingering the toy cylinders, tracing their false grain. Concentrated, lopsided, I pressed fingertips against the cool plastic, pulling away quick to inspect the imprint, the whorl against whorl.
 “You little brat!”—your sudden hiss. I moved quick, but not quick enough. I had forgotten how it was after beanstalk men came to the house. I had not been vigilant this time, not been alert. Your hands found my hair like the clever priest yanking the demoness Lilith in place, drawing her hard to the bottleneck. My little palms each still held a log and I squeezed tight, fingernails pressing painfully over and digging back in. You swung me around to look at you, the yank of hair giving my head an odd twist.
 “Liked that, didn’t you, you little brat?” Another hiss. I tried to look away from those eyes, but couldn’t, caught by the nape as I was. “You meant to cast that dark demon across this home. You drew him here. So you could watch.”
 I looked at you, confused. In that moment I would have stopped all watching, all seeing if I could. I would have stopped all moving for you. No dark demon,Mama. I would have promised to never move in front of the sun again, Mama, would have cut the shadow from my ankles if you handed me the right knife. Never to lay dark shadow across you or our little home.
 You had brought the necromancer deck with you this time, the Dark Grimoire Tarot. Ten of Swords, Eight of Cups, Knight of Wands. I could read the faces, too. You let go my hair, gathered me across your lap; and I, half-animal, half-child draping and loping like a figure on a darkened stage, curled and purred and fought tears in your lap, grateful as you spoke out the words in the low, old-country tones. As you spoke and sang the nothing-curses over me once more.


Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction, 2019 ▪ Winner


   “‘To the Bottleneck’ is a story as gripping as it is haunting—a mysterious foray into the human psyche and into a compact universe of unknown surprises. At its core, the piece is a tale of mother and child, the latter’s distinctive voice authentic in every syllable. Rarely have I encountered a world so alien and simultaneously so familiar to my own. Genuine magic from the pen of a gifted literary sorcerer.”—Jacob M. Appel, Final Judge, 2019 Able Muse Write Prize (for fiction) on this winning story, “To the Bottleneck Fiction” by Erin Russell.