The summers here are made of long, untended grass and flat, lemon light. Baking ground. Sunshine-haze. Shadows cast so dark and deep they seem as solid and alive as the bodies that throw them.
The summers here see even the mornings sharp with heat, and every morning I leave the hot mess of my sheets to stand outside on the patio stones and study the drain.
This gullied, gutted hole.
Even now it sparkles with its secret wet supply.
I’m fearful of it.
Fearful because no matter how long and dry the summer, slugs come up the drain and creep on their snake-bellies’ round the patio, trying to get into the house.
I’ve hated slugs since I was a child. Once, I pinched one between my forefinger and thumb and rubbed it to death. It was a baby, no larger than a bean.
At night I hear their slow procession, all the slugs that live beneath the house. I hear them moving around, shriveling over the pebbles and dirt like the skin on staling fruit.
Wandering blindly up and down the lawn. Stalk-eyes roving.
Now, in the daytime, the garden is all rustle and sigh and I can’t hear whatever sounds their lithe bellies might be making.
I see one, its blind snout appearing—a thumb-sized black snake departing the rim of the cracked drain’s edge. It heads for the dry grass that sits like crust overcooked around the lush innards of the lawn.
If Father were here he’d scatter salt.
He’d pour it down the drain.
If I’d the stomach for the sizzle and stink their thousand corpses would make I’d do the same.
Father didn’t hate slugs, but he was wary of them.
Liquid and solid, they’re neither one thing nor the other, and they take their time in coming.
It’s fitting, I suppose, that I should be tracking one today. This day that sees a long wait come to a close. Because The Ground is moving.
For the first time in all these long, pale years. It’s moving.
It’s finished; done.
Nearby the lavender, grown in a heap, has had its scent worn away.
Such is the way in this heat.
Little, that is, aboveground.
Father was always more creaturely than me.
There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind.
He’d come back ’round dawn, his throat and his chest and his belly smeared with red, pushing in the back door and straightening up in the kitchen. Bones clicking, shoulders rolling into place, he’d say
—Why don’t you ever come hunt with me, Ada?
And I’d laugh and remind him that I’d pleasures all my own.
Every morning when we were expecting a Cure, he’d say
—You’ve a Cure today, Ada.
As if he needed to remind me. As if I’d ever once forgot. I’d be kneeling in the grass, getting familiar with a cricket or a bird, and he’d call to me—just for the satisfaction, it sometimes seemed, of disrupting me: Cure today, Cure today . . .
This particular morning it couldn’t have been long after six but already the summer heat was settling in, the sky wide and bleached, and The Ground calling for rain.
The garden is long and mostly grass but back then, close to the house, we kept a patch of moist, fragrant soil. This was as much ground as Father had managed to tame, and it was where we put Cures that needed long, deep healing. The easier ones we saw to in the house. The rest of The Ground we didn’t use for anything; it was too temperamental and kept to rules we couldn’t follow. The Burial Patch let Cures sleep their sickness away—sped up stitch and suture—but The Ground, the long, long lawn, it gorged on bodies. Shaped them to its own liking.
The Ground is where Father and I were born. It appears randomly, in all sorts of places, and so though Father was born in The Ground he was born somewhere else, somewhere far away.
Inside the house Father was bent over the stove, stewing a broth that had a citrus smell. He was so tall and had to bend so deep it often struck me he’d have been better kneeling.
His faded white shirt and his faded white pants gave his skin a sandy sparkle. When it was hot enough to sweat he glowed against the dull house, against the cracked porcelain and the faded pine and the rugs whose colors looked like they’d been watered down.
I nodded at the broth.
—Is that for Mrs. Levine?
Claudia Levine was that day’s Cure.
—No, it’s not for anyone. I’m trying something new.
Claudia Levine arrived at noon and I sang her belly open, sang her sickness away—tricked it into a little bowl under the table. Closed her up again, woke her up again. Told her she’d be sore in the morning, waved her away down the drive, poured her sickness down the drain.
And then I went out to meet Samson.
Such was the easy, singsong pattern of my days.
Often, a Cure would say You probably don’t remember me but I’m Such-and-Such’s daughter and we’d say Oh yes we do of course we do while recalling some unspectacular mother or father, and they’d look at us long and wistful, hoping for some little glimmer of our private selves.
We tried not to get too personal with Cures or let them see too many of our ways. They scared easy, and while they knew that we didn’t eat and that we aged slow, they didn’t know I stole the song out of baby birds or that Father ran through the woods like a bear.
No. Most Cures frightened easy.
That was part of the magic about Samson.
I’d been seeing Samson for what felt like a long time, mostly because I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten by without him.
He’d come to the house a few months before, looking to be cured of a sore on the roof of his mouth. I almost laughed at the smallness of it—it seemed such a harmless, nonsense thing to pay for—but he said it’d been there for weeks with no sign of going away. I didn’t even need to put him asleep, just made him rest his head back in the kitchen chair and sang a little tune into his open mouth. I held his head and hooked my thumbs into his cheeks, and later he told me that was what did it. The sore came up on the wall behind him because I’d been too lazy to fetch a cup or bowl. It puckered there, discoloring the paint, while he looked at me and said he liked the sound of my name.
This is something Cures don’t know about their curing.
The sickness isn’t gone.
It just goes elsewhere.
Late the day after, Annabelle Lennox arrived with two lungs full of fluid that couldn’t be tended to while still inside her, so we took them out and put her to ground.
First, we laid her on the kitchen table and unbuttoned her dress—like she was already a corpse we meant to bathe.
Her ribs had dark, smudged shadows between them, like they’d been whitewashed with paint and the undercoat was starting to wear through. I was holding two hands over her face and singing—clucking whenever it looked like she might waken.
Father opened her quickly, his large hand disappearing inside her with a papery sound. He studied the left lung and then the right. She gasped, coarsely, when he lifted them out of her. He went to the pantry holding one in each hand. Their mucus trailed behind him, catching on corners. Wispy. Smoky. I heard him go out the patio door and then saw him through the kitchen window: digging.
He came back in, wiping his hands on his shirt.
He lifted her and I held her head so her neck didn’t pull, slipping my fingers under her curls. Soft warm scalp.
She looked much smaller, laid out in the hole Father had made for her. This was often the case.
The juice of her innards still clung to Father’s forearms with a slow, thick shine.
The mouth of the shovel caught the last of the evening light as he filled in the hole. Quick, practiced motion. The handle worn smooth where he gripped it. A high wind was rolling in, shaking the oleander and making the lamp over the patio door squeak. It was night, all of a sudden, and I was tired.
Miss Lennox’s dress had turned the color of the damp ground. Now, almost covered up, she started to kick a little, her bare heels scuffing at the walls of her shallow bedding.
All this time I could hear her lungs—rocking inside the pantry, a sound like a boat tied at harbor. When the hole was filled Father walked across it in careful, even steps, pressing the soil down smooth.
He was very particular, when it came to digging.
Father started giving me slow drips of warning about The Ground when I was only a few weeks old.
—If it takes you there’s not much you can do. Try not to squirm and keep one hand straight up in the air. If you go in over your head, try not to open your mouth and eyes. No matter how long you’re there for, keep your face shut up tight.
—But you’ll see me?
—I’ll see you.
—And you’ll get me right away?
—There’s no reason for you to be in that part of the garden without me, anyway. Especially not before, during, or after rain.
—But we’re from The Ground.
—We are, and it would take us back if it could.
It never took me, though I was out there for almost half of every day. Trying to keep myself company.
I’d no one like myself other than Father, who was always working, and I frightened the Cure children. First time I tried to lie down with a boy, I didn’t know what I was doing. I lay down and he lay down over me and I held on tight. He went to put it in and there was nowhere for it to go and he got scared and bit me. Right on the neck. Left me with a toothy rosy ring and my smock creased ’round my thighs. Ran back to the house and to his mother, who Father was busy curing. I looked up through the branches and tutted, wondering at the sweet-hurt ache I know now to be what Cures call “lust,” “longing.”
By the time I took Samson inside, I’d grown myself an opening that I’d a dozen names for. The longing had come on strong enough by then, and so it appeared:
The first time was a week after I’d cured him. I’d been thinking about the soft fuzz of his hair on the back of his head and the strong tendons run up his throat.
I was walking toward Sister Eel Lake and the day was scalding. The long grass at the side of the dirt road yellow and chafing and all the trees wilting.
—Miss Ada? That you?
He’d parked his truck off the road, deep in shade. I could see him leaning on the door, an arm resting on the mirror at the driver’s side. I said
—What are you doing out here?
Knowing there was nothing between the Cures’ village and our home. He had on a white vest that his sweat saw stick to him. I looked at his chest and its nest of hair. He was leaning on the side of the truck and now he laughed and rubbed at his hard, taut stomach.
—I thought you might sing to me.
We lay down in the open back of the truck and he asked if there was much chance of hurting me. I only laughed and when I took him inside I laughed again, it was that good a feeling.
And so, quickly, we got into the habit of one another.
Excerpted from FOLLOW ME TO GROUND by Sue Rainsford. Copyright © 2018 by Sue Rainsford. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.