The Crickets’ Prayer

Norman Ellis

The door is ajar, and I can see Nonie on the table, just her middle. Her belly is almost flat. McCabe’s spidery hand smoothes her skirt underneath the straps. I hear Nurse Stein and McCabe talking in muffled tones. Usually there are three of them. One must be off today. They grow quiet. Nonie arches, her thighs straining against the straps, then she jerks, emitting a choking, desperate cry. The gauze-wrapped tongue depressor has fallen to the floor.

Nonie, flat and still, is wheeled out into the corridor. I smell her. They must hate us for it. The aides will clean her with a hose, but she doesn’t care anymore. Even the night terror seems to be happening to someone inhabiting Nonie’s body, someone apart from her that she does not know. She talks less, even to her radio. Memories have gone. She never tells me anymore of her childhood or family or the high school teacher she loved but never knew. She doesn’t mention her colored sounds anymore. She says shrieks and yowls have distinctive colors. The radio emits sounds with beautiful colors that bounce out into the air and on to the walls and ceiling, spreading over the room. She can see them with her eyes closed.

They say you don’t remember the shocks. Maybe I remember Nonie or maybe I remember someone else. This room is familiar, and that room, and lying strapped to the table. I have memories of paste on my temples, McCabe’s yellow breath on me, his hands buttoning my dress, adjusting the straps again. Something had gone wrong with the shocker, and I felt a terrible burning inside my head, a blinding pain, but I stayed awake. They did it again and again, but there was only the pain and uncontrollable jerking. McCabe tinkered with the apparatus. Nurse Stein took the depressor out of my mouth before I stopped jerking, and I bit my tongue and swallowed a mouthful of salty blood. It bled for days. They never knew, for McCabe would have brought me to his office.

On the good days I remember living in Mattie’s Springs where I was born, playing with my brother Cleve in the cold creek that ran from the springs, the minnows and crawfish we caught, and the beautiful stones we collected. Mama or my brother Acer would fetch us for supper, or take us in to change our wet clothes. My father had gone off to war before I was born and never came back. Acer said he remembered two soldiers coming to the house and Mama crying. She would tell me about him and his love for us. My brother Acer was old enough to remember. Years later, Mama married Mr. Walters and we went to live in his house in the Burce community. Mr. Walters was an older man, a good man, kind and devoted to us. When he was a teenager a tornado had destroyed his home, killing his parents, and injuring him and his brothers and sisters. Throughout the remainder of his life he was preoccupied with storms, spending much of his time surveying the sky and speculating about the probability of storms. Years before we came to live with him, he had his sawmill hands build a storm cellar, a small-room sized pit in the embankment beside the road. They covered the top with heavy timbers and sheet metal. A door opened onto the gravel road that would take us north across a mountain to Mattie’s Springs or to Wattstown to the east.

My arm is detached, floating along the ceiling. I must get it back before I’m strapped down. Nurse Stein leads me to the table. I’ll be together again when I awake afterwards, but not for long. I begin to come apart, not all at once, but a little at a time. The talks never helped. As I lay on the couch in McCabe’s office, parts of me would float away. A foot, an arm, or my belly would be lying on the floor or on McCabe’s desk. Once, my foot was in his white coat pocket. He wouldn’t look at it or listen. Even with his spidery hands on me, he didn’t know my parts were missing. I’d tell him and point, but he’d just stare at me, his bulging eyes grotesquely enlarged by his glasses. Before Mama married Mr. Walters and the three of us went to his house to live, I was all together. It started after Cleve was gone.

Mr. Walters’ sawmill can be seen from the porch, across the gravel road, beside Burce’s creek. Rusting pipes draw water from the creek to cool the Packard engine that powers the saw. When the pipes clog, the old engine spouts great clouds of steam, and the mill is stopped until it cools. The men drink water from the bucket and wipe sweat from their sad faces. One oils the wheels on the carriage that rams the pine logs into the saw. I take lunch to Mr. Walters, Acer, and Cleve on days they want to stay and eat with the other men. I stay until they start the mill again. The great saw plows through the logs, ripping off yellow slabs of rosiny wood as the carriage shuttles the logs back and forth. Cleve rides the carriage, adjusting the log for each passage. The boards fall helter skelter, and Acer sorts them into neat stacks.

McCabe probes and probes. “You must tell me everything. It will make you feel better and you’ll get well. You won’t have spells anymore and you won’t be sad.” He says I’m still resisting after seven years. He wants me to talk about Cleve and what we did, about the rest of my family, and then back to Cleve. Sometimes he makes notes or pretends to. The shocks seem easier to take.

This is the second Thursday in the month and the peddler will come any minute now in his rolling store, tearing over the road from Mattie’s Springs, kicking up a cloud of dust, heading for Wattstown. He usually arrives around noon. Mama is primping before her broken mirror in the bedroom, smoothing her straight black hair down her back, preparing to meet Squaredeal. He, too, has Creek blood, and they discuss it with great pride most every time he comes. The boys will come up from the mill for a Nehi grape or a root beer, maybe a moon pie, if it hasn’t been too long since payday. The mill boys also like Squaredeal. They laugh it up while finishing their drinks. Mama climbs into the store, searching for spools of thread, a piece of material to make a shirt or dress, and the usual stock for her pantry—baking soda, matches, kerosene, and the like. Squaredeal will tell them the news and gossip gleaned along his route. This is a happy time for Mama.

I’m sleepy, but together. I touch my arms, legs, belly, breasts, each part of me, and I am there. The others have been to the dining room, and Nurse Stein is giving medication. Nonie lies in bed listening and talking to the radio her sister brought. Marie sits on the floor, rocking rhythmically, striking the wall with the back of her head. She has worn a bald spot. The sun is down and the grey edge of darkness is near. Most nights I am apart in bed. If I scream out, they come and look down at me, but don’t listen. Sweet Jesus, keep me together tonight. Through the window I can see the Exercise Yard and beyond 12 West. The men have not yet been taken in. Jude Watson hunkers on the steps biting his arm. His teeth have been removed, and he can no longer bite away flesh from his red and swollen arm. Before the drugs, he paced rapidly back and forth in the yard, preaching in a high-pitched voice. Now he is silent, but when the aides try to move him inside, he screams in animal-like bleats.

Cleve and I are swimming in Burce’s creek. We come here often in the summer. The moonlight comes and goes with the scudding clouds. A cold wind is rising, and there is lightning in the southwest. I stay in the warm creek water, watching Cleve swim back and forth in long rhythmic strokes. A night bird protests; we are aliens here, and everywhere.

Winter has come again and a thick blanket of snow covers the Exercise Yard. I can see into 12 West, across the corner of the snowy yard. Sumer Bolen stands inside by a partially opened window, intensely watching pigeons and a few doves huddling on the window ledge, seeking the warm air escaping from the ward. They often feed in the yard on good weather days, after the patients have been brought in for the night. I see Sumer sneak closer to the window and ease his hand out through the opening and grab one of the doves. The other startled birds fly away. He begins plucking feathers from the captured bird and releasing them outside into the wind. The lighter ones drift away, the heavier ones fall on the snow below the window. Soon the bird is bare, and he drops it onto the snow, a pinkish fluttering glob. It manages to struggle several feet out into the yard and sink partway into the soft snow. I watch as its pinkness becomes purple, its movement less vigorous, until it ceases to move. Sumer watches for a while, then wipes his hands on his night shirt and gets into bed.

We sit on the porch, Mr. Walters, Mama, Acer and me. Cleve is dead and buried at Macedonia. Mr. Walters plays the fiddle. His face is freshly washed, his hair cut and slicked back. He plays only when the weather is dry. Dampness will ruin the fiddle he says. Guinea fowls strut about the yard, pecking at imaginary grains of corn. An occasional acorn plops onto the clean-swept clay yard, and the guinea fowls race toward it. I sit on the steps, my arms around my drawn up legs. But the left one floats away and lies in the yard. The toes are twitching and the guinea fowls run over to look, their heads jabbing from side to side on their long necks. This happened once before, but I thought I was only dreaming. The guinea fowls are there and see it. I scream and run to get my leg. I am together again, but can’t stop screaming. Acer catches and holds me. I don’t tell him, but surely he sees my leg.

The green magic of April is sweeping across the land, and Cleve and I are on the path up Stovall Mountain. Clumps of blue violets grow profusely around the base of the pines, and Cleve picks some along the way. We reach a glade near the summit and lie on our backs in the grass. Cleve braids the violets into a chain and puts it around my head. We look into the sky and pretend we’re up there floating away on the soft white clouds. After a while, we climb on to the summit. Mattie’s Springs lies in the far distance, just mere specks of houses clumped along a dusty road. We can’t see the springs, but we remember them from our childhood there. It grows late, and the sun begins to sink behind the mountains. The twilight creeps toward us, eclipsing Mattie’s Springs. We make our way down the dark mountain trail, with only the eerie whirring of the tree frogs, the glowing foxfire, and the cool night air swishing the pines.

Nurse Stein makes me take off my clothes for an examination. I turn away when McCabe returns to the room, but to no avail. He pretends to listen to my heart. His face is near my breasts, and I can feel his yellow breath on me. I am spread apart, and he is looking at me. Nurse Stein stands by, and we look into each other’s sadness.

I lie in the sedge field. My body and head are apart. I cannot get to my body and it twitches and rolls about in the sedge. The crows peck at my toenails and stare at me with their beady eyes. I am scratched and bleeding from running through the briars. Mama told the doctor my spells were growing more frequent, but he tells her I’ll be all right.

Cleve and I go down the wooded trail to the spring. The milk is in a jug, cooled by the water gushing up out of the earth. We’ll take it up for supper, but there is time, and we dally. The alders shade the spring, and us. It is cool here and silent except for a distant bird, and the gurgling water as it rushes away to join Burce’s Creek. A gentle wind stirs the tops of the alders. The peopled world seems far away, and irrelevant.

In the Sheriff’s car I am alone in the back seat. A screen separates me from the men in front, and there are no inside handles on the doors. My leg floats away and is outside the car. It gets far behind, and I scream and struggle to get it. The men turn and stare and won’t listen. McCabe and Nurse Stein come to the car, and the aides wrap me up so that I can’t move. I can’t see my parts and don’t know whether or not my leg is back. I care less after the shot. Acer and Mama have followed the Sheriff’s car, and they watch, unmoving, as I am taken out of the car and carried into the building.

I wasn’t together much of the time on the drugs, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t speak loud enough to get their attention. It was as if I were at the bottom of a well calling to them at the top looking down at me. They could see me struggling, but they only watched, expressionless. I could hear myself and the echoes saying my limbs are off, I am apart, but they don’t hear.

Sweet Jesus comes in the night when Marie ceases to rock, and Jude Watson’s chanting is silenced by the drugs. I am all apart in bed. Parts of me squirm about, bumping into one another, and I can’t tell which part I’m in or if I’m outside observing them.

Mr. Walters awakens us in the dead of night, lantern and quilts in hand. I am drenched with night sweat when we reach the cellar, trembling uncontrollably from the cold. Mr. Walters opens the storm cellar door, and the rain and wind gust momentarily. He peers fearfully into the darkness at the distant cloud, closes the door and turns back toward us. The lantern’s light flickers across his ageing face. Cleve and I stay in the cellar after the storm has passed, and the others have gone back to the house. The insides of the cellar are bare earth except for the timbers of the roof, which is covered over with sheet metal and dirt. The crickets cling to the timbers, peering down at us in the dim light. It grows quiet with only the two of us there, and they begin to pray to their inscrutable cricket god. Beyond the open door, we can see the moonlit field of jimson weed and the occasional shadow of a night bird as it cuts across the sky. They took the lantern, but the kerosene odor lingers, mingles with the pine rosin on Cleve’s pants and the smell of damp earth. The rain has stopped and the air is cool. The clouds have drifted to the northwest, and far away great tongues of lightning lick at the earth. The elderberries are wet and glistening, muddy water gurgles in the ditch alongside the road. Cleve is pensive and silent, and the night is sad.

Nurse Stein said that if I didn’t have any more spells they would stop the shocks, and I could go back to seeing McCabe. I saw him looking at me after my bath. I had on the dress Acer sent. Acer only sends things now; he never writes and rarely comes to see me anymore. He has a new wife and a baby. I’ve never seen them and probably never will. Mama came to see me once before she got sick and died. They buried her at Macedonia, but they wouldn’t let me out to go to her funeral.

Mr. Walters grew frail in the spring following Cleve’s death. He played the fiddle, but the lilt was not the same, and he never patted his foot again, even when he played Soldier’s Joy. The lines deepened in his leathery face. Mama told us that he’d seen Elijah the prophet standing among the jimson weed in the field beyond the creek, late one evening after Cleve’s death—Elijah had spoken to him. He often sat on the porch staring toward the creek bottom and the hills beyond, hardly noticing the occasional car or wagon that passed along the road. He never spoke of Cleve. One summer day after the mill sounds had stopped, he could not make it to the house, and Acer and Mama helped him up the hill and to his bed. I hope he knew we didn’t blame him for Cleve’s death. Mama said she heard him cry out in the night saying “Cleve” again and again.

Nonie is standing at the foot of my bed, dancing from one foot to the other, as if she needs to pee. She stutters and I can’t understand what she is saying. Finally, she tells me that McCabe is dead. He was examining the shocker and electrocuted himself. She giggles and dances away.

Sumer Bolen has managed to get past the aides, across the yard, and lurks in the corridor at Nonie’s door, making hissing sounds at her. Her legs are bare below her gown, and his eyes search her body. She is oblivious to him, steeped in her radio world. The aides take him away, kicking and trying to bite them as they drag him back to 12 West. They say he was once a street preacher. Marie has soiled herself, but the aides appear not to notice. Poor Nonie smiles. She grows more animal-like each day, eating with her hands, great mouthfuls spilling down her dress. She has begun to lie on the floor much of the time, making squeaking sounds. Her husband came to see her once and brought lunch they ate together on the grounds. He never came again. Nurse Stein gives Jenny her shot in the hip. Darkness inches across the Exercise Yard from 12 West. Napoleon Smith stands against the fence reviewing his troops in the yard, rigid and unblinking. Soon two burly aides will carry him, still standing, into 12 West. The noise of madness grows fainter as the yard begins to empty for the night.

The hill beyond bleeds yellow mud. It rushes down the ditch in front of the storm cellar door and on into the mill slough. The lantern’s glow flickers, illuminating Mr. Walters’ gaunt face as he peers out into the night searching with a quiet terror for the storm’s deadly core. Mama shivers and abides the dank tomb with an old quilt drawn tightly about her shoulders. Acer sleeps. The cellar smells of mingled kerosene, pine rosin, earth, and sweaty bodies. A gust of wind sends showers of acorns onto the barn. We hear it faintly. The guinea fowls huddle in the alder thicket, emitting startled cries. Thunder grows near and flashes of lightning reveal the flooding mill slough. The ever-present crickets watch us in silence.

The gray shadow has morphed into purple as it creeps across the yard, dampening the madness, and eclipsing the Pope. His bed sheet robe sweeps the dirt as he sways from side to side chanting an unknown litany. The aides will soon take him in. A breeze brings the smell of old food, urine, and sad bodies. Nonie’s radio hisses white noise, punctuated by the static of distant lightning. Stein prepares to leave for the day, chatting birdlike with the night nurse who sorts the capsules, arranging them in neat rows in small paper cups—blue and red, green and orange. They are to protect us against unspeakable terrors of the night. Mrs. Ables darts for the open door of the nurses’ station, but Stein sees her and slams the door shut. She falls to the floor, squats, pees, giggles.

The wagons and cars will pass along the gravel road on their way to Macedonia. We will follow the hearse, Mama, Mr. Walters, Acer, and me. I will not think about the mill and the angry saw or about Cleve inside the coffin. I will think about the summer revivals at Macedonia, Sweet Jesus, and the haunting old songs that bring tears to my eyes. I will think of the wagon ride up the yellow clay hills, the straw in the wagon, and the smell of the horses. I will think of the jimson weed fields and the spring where Cleve and I often lingered. I will think of night storms, the dank cellar, the plaintive crickets’ cry, and the rushing creek as it passes the mill. The preacher will eulogize my brother Cleve, and speak of our sadness, and his certain return to earth. They will sing the hymns of dying and salvation. They will not open the coffin. A gaunt old man with gnarled hands will lead off the singing of In the Sweet By and By. . . . A woman in a freshly ironed print dress will cool her face with a Jesus fan. Another with a holy glint in her eyes will stand and cry out, shout praises, and wave her arms to Heaven. A screaming baby with a wet diaper will be carried out, down the aisle, by a frantic mama.

I will remember the smell of violets Cleve put in my hair, not the sweet, sickening flowers on his coffin. I will think of us lying in the grass atop Stovall Mountain, looking toward Mattie’s Springs, remembering our childhood, and riding the drifting clouds away into the sky. I will think of us alone in the cellar after a storm with the gentle rain against the door and Cleve’s warm body against me.

Acer has finally come to see me, and we sit watching the purple yard, waiting for the darkness. I tell him about the new doctor Amati who replaced McCabe last year. I no longer get shocks or therapy, except for the new music therapy that Amati started. They say his ancestors were violin makers in the old country. He joins us but often dozes. I do, too. My spells are not so bad anymore. I’m still sad, but it’s not like it was. It’s more like it’s someone else who’s sad, as Nonie often said. They have moved her to another ward, and I never see her anymore. Maybe they’d let me go home now, but I’d have nowhere to go. Acer might take me, but I couldn’t ask him, with his new wife and baby and all.

It grew darker and Acer would soon have to leave. When I told him I had died, he turned away and stared into the darkness. Finally he looked at me and asked if I enjoyed the fudge. We sat in the darkness a while longer. The air was chilly, reminding me of nights in the storm cellar, the smell of the damp earth and the whirring crickets.

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