by Rachel Brown ’16, Staff Writer
I don’t have anything left for you. You say you’re sorry, but that’s not the point. Did you feel each word as it left your mouth, as it clicked against your teeth like a bullet? I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t need you here to remind me of my old scars. We’re back in the tobacco field, but your guilt has no place here. We’re back in the tobacco field, and its arms stretch out for the sky with or without us in them. The cut stalks slump against each other like broken brown fingers, and the dry harvest air walks right into your body and curls up as if it belongs. It does, in your body and in my body. That’s it. We can’t get around it, as much as we try.
I remember being told how the earth here has our family in it, centuries deep, and how we pay it back by burying its smoke in our own lungs. But maybe you’ve forgotten. You don’t smoke anymore, your voice is whole. The way you talk now’s like rain, full of years and years of its own movement, of its own drunkenness in places I can’t map, with people I don’t know, but my speech is scarred by years and years of breathing in the burning of my own land. It’s all right, I’m used to it; the place on my side where they cut you away from me when we were born is a scar. See, I’ve lived with you my entire life. Don’t you fucking dare believe that I’ve forgotten you, that I’ve forgotten I love you. I scar, I don’t forget—my scars, which nobodysees but me. But you, your skin is smooth as the rim of the fall moon on a clear night, smooth as gunmetal, smooth as a turned back.
Please, I don’t blame you for it. I don’t blame you for any of it.
We are back in the tobacco field, like we are always back in the tobacco field. Maybe it’s physics that the first place you bleed is the place you always get pulled back to, but if that’s true you’d know better than I. Every moment of knowledge I might have had I gave up to protect you. I used to long for it with an aching, like the way I used to want to take the October sky and fold it into my lungs mile by mile, sharp and blue and implacable. I’m too old now, I don’t have any room left in me for that.. That’s all you. This field has taken my mind and packed it down with stone and dirt and dry tobacco stalks, and after years and years of consuming everything good in me, the only things it hasn’t used up are the things I’d already given to you.
This damn field. I know every inch; after decades of me alone on a dozen acres my scars map the borders and the ditches and the furrows. I’ve slept with pieces of that field in my bed more often than I’ve slept with anybody else. Once, someone ran his hands over my back in the early morning, saw the maze of twisted white scar tissue on it. He asked me, what is this from?, trailing a finger around the memory of a bad fall that had scrawled itself into my shoulder blade, his touch gentle. As if there was anything to find there. I said, from the same place it’s going: nowhere. There was dirt in my hands and joints and scalp, and it belonged to me more than that man or any other ever did.
I’m gonna get outta here someday, I told him.
His breath huffed into my forearm, too quiet for me to tell if it was a laugh or a sigh. So then what’re you gonna do about this name tattooed on your thumb, huh?, he said. How’re you gonna leave a place you wrote into your own body? I stayed quiet against his neck but I thoughtforget you for reminding me. Tangled in my limbs and my bed, his skin was as marred as mine, the marks of calluses and sun and giving and giving to something that never gave back.
I have a scar for him too. From the grey morning when I woke up to a room scoured clean of anything of his, and him sitting by the door with his bags and his good winter jacket. I was gonna die here, he told me, his hands framing my jaw. I know, I told him. So will I. He pressed his forehead against mine and closed his eyes. He said, I hope you figure out that tattoo. And then he left.
The scar is from the stove rack, when I pulled it out to make breakfast and found it already hot from the food he’d started and left there to cook. I hadn’t looked, my mind too full of love to pay attention to anything else, and the thin fiery metal kissed my hand and didn’t let go. That’s how the scar ended up: a kiss, a thick white slash on the fold of my palm, the seal on a letter written to nobody. I wasn’t surprised. My whole life has been spent being burned by what I want.
If our field was a woman, her eyes would be huge and her skin cracked and raw and covered in scars, like mine. She would walk towards us with the limp left by that drought when you and I were fifteen and she’d laugh and say I love you. She’d say I can no longer stand to love you, her voice trembling, and then she’d hit us both as hard as she could in our faces, and that effort would shake her apart and she’d be gone, dead and nowhere.
My hate for this woman is very much like my hate for you: I can’t hold it anymore, I know you too well. I thought it would be easy, just cutting my love out and replacing it, but it’s hard to hate someone when you’ve seen her laugh, seen her afraid. I remember that bright, freezing winter morning when we were eighteen and I promised I’d go with you. To the train station, I said, to the city, to wherever, to everywhere. I promised to feel everything with you, just in case you ever forgot it—I was there for that, when your relieved laugh broke out of your mouth so fiercely that your chapped lips cracked and started to bleed. Your cigarette fell to the ground and singed the dried tobacco leaves there and we rushed to smother the small flame, laughing at your clumsiness, our joy, harder and harder until we were slumped against each other like the rows of bent tobacco stalks surrounding us, our breath clouding with cold.
I can’t hate you. I was there when Daddy pointed that shotgun at you. He was shaking, crying you can’t go, you can’t, I won’t let you leave. Over and over. I remember how you were all dressed to get out of there, to hop on that train and go, but the wind whipped your scarf off your shoulders; how your face was huge with terror. I remember that his voice was like hail falling onto tilled earth: a series of muted thuds. Then the gunshot crack I was there when the accidental bullet, meant for nobody, ripped through me instead.
Damn you, you were shouting, Damn you! And I remember I didn’t know who you were blaming, Dad for the gun or me for stepping in front of you or the field for dragging us all together like that, that inescapable kin-specific gravity. I don’t remember falling. Just the field rising up to catch me—the ground hard against my back, stretching out on all sides, the winter cold of the brown dirt, my warm blood, the earth getting damper as if in rain, the smell of the dry soil, harsh and beloved—my own blood filling my lungs like liquid smoke.
It doesn’t mean anything to me that you remember exactly where I fell, where I bled into the ground and your pretty scarf. We are twins, we are mirrored scars; you know the spot where I bled nearly dry because it was your blood too, blood from your cold-split lips. Your ground too, your father. We share everything but this: it wasn’t your wound, it wasn’t your bullet scar, it wasn’t your body tied into that exhausted field in this give-nothing place.
I don’t blame you for leaving. You just forgot you had something to keep you here: the barbed wire tie between you and I, Dad’s cutting love for his little girls, who he had to hurt from the beginning, who he had to scar to protect. You never remember this part because it hurts you too much. He and I were so afraid to lose you, so afraid to be lonely that we’d have done anything to keep you—would have left home for you, spilt blood for you.
You forgot everything about this place except what you hated. But I remember the first time Dad showed us how to till, to plant, to cultivate and harvest and dry. When he set a flame to the end of a hand-rolled cigarette and said here, baby girl. You gotta hold that heat inside you, no matter what. Do you think I’ve forgotten? If you’re going to stand here and ask me to pull all this out of myself, you can’t shy away from the burning parts. Dad shot me out of love and drove you away out love, spent years and years in our house smoking his life up in pieces of dead tobacco until it killed him, out of love. If you’re going to tell me I’m too much like him with that pity in your face you better not back down when I remind you you’re like him too. You smoked and cursed and cried and pressed your hands down to my bleeding gut, and so did he; you sure as hell scarred me too.
I tattooed a name in my hand and the name is mine. It’s our surname, it’s Dad’s name and yours and mine and my lonely field’s on every map for centuries. I didn’t choose it for you, or for him. When I got that tattoo at nineteen, just out of the hospital with more scars than I knew what to do with—the bullet, and you leaving us anyway, and Dad’s sickening painful remorse, and the touch of that tobacco field against every part of me, inside and out—what I meant by it was to remember. I wrote this name into my body because when something speaks your language, when it has your blood, it has a claim on you that never goes away. That’s it. No way around it. The only thing I did was claim it back—the thing that you didn’t do, the thing your coming back for me doesn’t matter against. What Dad couldn’t quite manage because he loved his daughters too much and what that man who left me would’ve died trying to be more important than.
So I’m sorry I don’t have anything left to give you, but this is why. This name is my together-with-name, my together-with-nothing-name, the one I take for myself. In the pale, expansive air I light my cigarette, and you rest your hand on your ribs, and the wind shakes in the skeleton leaves. We’re back in the tobacco field. As always, the bare earth whispers cognomen, cognomen, and I am the only one who understands.