Burning Streams by Alexis Brooks de Vita

Burning Streams

(Alexis Brooks de Vita)

Burning Streams




The white Jaguar glided into the clearing as though the women had entered a sinister fairy tale. The house shuddered before them in waves of sunlight, an ancient girl-woman roused suddenly from sleep, a sphinx curled in on secrets.

I'm getting fanciful, Eva thought as she rose from her cousin's Jaguar to face the wreck of all their dreams.

Staring at the house, Eva felt that it stirred. Its unfocused gaze met her own. Light shimmered on vines parted like braids on a head thrown back to peer drowsily at her, revealing rotted planks, broken steps, and staggered bits of insect-bored wood. Willow fronds and wisteria vines framed the wisdom and ignorance that softened the house's unearthly facade.

Why do I feel I know you? The house seemed uncannily familiar to Eva, painfully charming in its degenerated state. Cockeyed with skewed windows, wild with tangled growth like sleep-matted locks, nursing unhealed wounds and hurtful secrets, the house exuded welcome, hope, and hideousness in equal measure. Clearly, it was still standing only because it was too far north to get the full blast of Hurricanes Ike or Katrina.

But what was that horrid stone growth, like a lumpy gray goiter, that met the wraparound porch on one side and scuttled like a bug toward the back?

"Welcome to Mississippi," Charley said. Eva's cousin Charlotte had slipped out of the idling car and come upon her like a wraith. Thin as a specter and silent as a ghost, was Charley.

Suddenly upright in the heavy air, Eva weaved and steadied herself against the car. When had she last eaten? She had been in such a hurry to get here, to reach the site of both their ancestry and their new beginnings, that she had worked herself into a frenzy of map-reading, catnapping, and hours behind the wheel when Charley could drive no longer.

For three days, Eva, Charley, and Eva's daughter Anastasia had trekked from Los Angeles into the Deep South. First, the Southwestern deserts burned them dry of the salty waters of their coastal birth. Then, they'd marveled all along the Atchafalaya highway at the miles of dying swampland and lingered in Louisiana, determined to feed what little revenue they could, in one day and night, into the oil-ravaged community. Now, what was left of Mississippi's vine-canopied woods, logged to aridity along the major highways, and its Blues and Civil Rights signposts the closer they got to the plantation, all called up unfamiliar memories as if from primordial waters.

Perhaps Eva could do her dissertation on ancestral memory in African American literature here, under the ever-present weight of a history of people in chains, hung from trees, blasted by rifles, gnawed by scavengers. Was this intuitive empathy what Eva's beckoning Southern ancestry had given her? Could that be what she had just thrown aside a lifetime of achievement to discover?

And how did Charley feel now that hope had slammed into reality?

Time to turn around and head back to L.A., Eva fretted. But, "It can't really be this bad," was what she said.

It was the heat, so wet and heavy. The fistful of braids that tended to migrate from the nape of her neck to a ballerina's topknot tugged at her scalp. Blood sucked empty of oxygen struggled to reach her brain. I'm going to faint, Eva thought.

"Girl, get a grip," Charley quipped, stolid as always.

What have I led them into? Eva never would have imagined abandoning everything she had worked for to chase the illusion of an ancestral home. It was Charley who had said, "Let's just go do it, Eva. My treat." As if it were a trip to the Santa Monica Pier.

So Eva had joyfully dropped it all, the lecture hall of upturned student faces and the pen-tapping, mumbling professors. She had even let go of that elusive dissertation that vanished like a mirage each time she approached it, touched it, tried to reduce it to black words on a white page. What did Eva know about ancestry? No more than she knew about her lonely, lovely daughter, whom she had just hurt once more by snatching her out of an excellent university to drag her to this mosquito-ridden backwater.

"Can we go back to earlier, more hopeful times?" Eva had asked Anastasia and Charley when she told them of her inheritance. She meant Los Angeles and its disemboweling success. Exile from the old neighborhood. Swallowed fear. The desire to flee.

Which was what they'd done. Having shot from poverty into that disillusioned class of the African American elite, the three women had come away, escaped, so to speak, in search of meaning. But what could this wreck of a plantation mansion, this disaster of history long past, possibly mean?

What could the house mean now, echoing her own questions back to Eva in its unstill repose? "Go back. More hopeful?"

"It wants us," Eva babbled. "So why do I feel like this is our last chance to get away from it?"

The exhausted city women escaping to a home they had never known were, Eva decided, the house's destiny. They had not suspected what pulled them here. But the house had known and waited. Like a lonely old lady caught unaware by visitors, the house self-consciously gathered its frayed foliage and fragmented bits. It would be rude to turn and leave just yet.

Charley had no more patience. "Say what?"

Eva felt a light touch. A hand slid around her waist. Eva turned. Of course, the embrace came from gentle Anastasia.

"Thank you, Anastasia," her mother said. "I needed that."

Anastasia's voice was a whisper. "Let's get you out of this heat. You don't look all right."

Charley said, "You're dizzy as a betsy bug, Eva. You haven't eaten more than three bites together in as many days. In this heat, that can't be healthy. Let's go get us some grub. Everything'll look better on a full stomach. Even this nonsense."

Eva sensed real rage boiling up. Nonsense, Charley called it. Really, there was no answering Charley sometimes. No dealing with her, either. "I'm not hungry. You go ahead."

"Oh, come on, Eva. You know that gas station we passed at the turn-off from the main road to come here? I bet they have some of that down home food out of somebody's grandmama's kitchen that you've developed such a taste for." Charley's tone took on the smile that Eva refused to turn and see. "Some of that peach and rhubarb cobbler? Or maybe that fried okra dripping with green pepper sauce?"

Anastasia laughed. It was true that, the deeper South the women had ventured, the more their tastes had leapt to embrace wildly regional foods their minds could not remember.

To lighten her discouraged mood, Eva bantered back. "Or maybe some of that alligator sausage you took such a liking to in Baton Rouge. I swear, Charley, I didn't think we'd ever get you away from that Cajun fisherman. And don't tell me it was money and a job he was looking for, from you."

The palpable pain that shot across Charley's face and left it shut against her shocked Eva. What had Charley heard in the meaningless tease?

Anastasia stepped in to pacify aunt and mother. "I'll go with you, Aunt Charley." She slid onto the Jaguar's back seat.

Charley balked. "She's going? What does that mean? We're all going. I know you don't think I'm leaving you here alone."

Eva shook her head. "Charley, thank you for trying to save me from this moment. But you know perfectly well I did this to us, and I'm going to have to assess the situation on my own."

Charley snorted. The sound was profoundly rude and jarred Eva out of her slump. "As-sess," Charley hissed. "You blew it. What else is there to as-sess?"

Eva had to admit that this was a down-to-earth, admirably healthy approach to the mess she had landed them in. And she should be counting her blessings that Charley initiated it. As the financial backer of this misadventure, Charley had arguably the most right to be upset.

As an investment broker, Charley not only understood money but had amassed a worth that translated into what seemed a constant supply of cash and bargaining clout. It was always Charley who made it seem they could do almost anything.

Maybe this was a hopeful sign.

Hopeful? Charley was going to tell Eva to give it up. She'd say Eva should have listened to that attorney, the executor of their deceased relative's estate.

And why hadn't Eva listened to him?

Because she hadn't trusted him. It was clear that he and the real estate agent handling the property hadn't expected her to take an interest in her windfall. Some city woman out in California? They'd expected her to unload her inheritance on the first buyer they could snag. They were floored when she wanted to know more about the place.

They hadn't told her anything more than, "We can sell it to developers for you. It's got a fresh water source untouched by the Gulf oil spill and plenty of land for employee housing."

Eva suspected she knew what that meant. She'd read about the endemic poverty of the South exploited by overnight plants and factory towns that left ecological destruction and epidemic cancer in their wake.

She would not be part of it. That she promised herself. But how to persuade Charley not to sell?

Like an irrelevant flash in a daydream came the thought, Where is that fresh running water they told me about? And why is this air so heavy with unshed rain? And then Eva knew she had the answer.

Assess. Just like she'd said a minute ago. Slow down, calm down, pick up her courage, and take a look at the place.

Alone. Without worrying about Anastasia's future or Charley's investment. Or even her own dissertation.

Confront the house questioning only its own merit. And take it from there.

Now Eva turned to Charley with a smile. "You're wasting gas. It might be okay to buy peach and rhubarb cobbler from that gas station, but I'm not sure you want to trust their fuel."

Charley wasn't reconciled. "I know you ain't crazy enough to think I'm leaving your big-city self out here in the swamp with snakes and alligators. Get in the car, Eva."

Exhaustion and exasperation struck. Eva let go of the Jaguar's hood and sank to the weedy pebbles that ran in a U before what used to be the house's verandah. She reached gingerly from the safety of the low growth on the driveway across the border into the thicker grasses.

"What are you doing?" Charley screeched and bent to slap at her outstretched hand as if Eva were a child. "Playing in the dirt. Or are you faint? Get up out of there, Eva."

Eva snatched her hand from under her cousin's. "Charley, stop. I'm just trying to get a stick or something to fend off snakes. You're the one worried about them."

"Well, no need to go looking for them. Get up and come with me," Charley huffed. Eva rose and followed her obediently, always the younger cousin trailing behind.

She was alarmed to realize that she wobbled as she walked. She plastered herself against the car's rear end as Charley opened the trunk and fished inside.

"Here," Charley pronounced, wielding an unfurled umbrella at the ground. "I think I read somewhere about somebody opening an umbrella on a snake about to strike. It hit the metal rods with its fangs and knocked itself out. You try it."

Eva took the weapon. "Thank goodness we're isolated out here. You're not really going to make me carry this thing, are you?"

"Open it up fast, like this." Charley reached for it, to demonstrate.

Eva jerked the umbrella away. "Charley, leave."

At last, Charley smiled back. "Something sweet and something spicy?" she called as she dipped into the driver's seat.

Eva glowered. "You going for food or boyfriends?" she snapped and then, as always, wondered if she'd been too saucy in front of Anastasia.

But as the dusty white Jaguar, one of the original English makes-nothing parvenu for Charley-pulled forward around the U and surged through the dangling green canopy, Anastasia waved gaily at her mother from the front passenger seat. When had she shifted her seat from the back?

"She must have seen how the argument was going and figured I would be the winner," Eva mumbled. "Got into the front just like that. How does she know these things?" And when had Anastasia become such a silent reactor to all that went on in her mother's life, shifting her own plans without a murmur as her mother's circumstances made change necessary?

Absently, Eva shunted the umbrella open and shut at the pebbled driveway, fussing a bit when the button on the umbrella's handle stuck. "En garde," she challenged, wandering toward the house. Really. Could a human being possibly have reflexes fast enough to stun a leaping snake?

"Seems to me that thing'll do you more good if you raise it over your head," a voice said.

Eva shrieked and dropped the umbrella.

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to scare you." The baritone voice drifted from the doorway of the sleepy, feminine house. Eva's first ridiculous thought was that she expected the house to sound girlish and wise like Anastasia.

Her second thought was that she was not alone out here, so far from everyone and anything. So far from help. "You didn't scare me," she announced shakily. She bent to retrieve the fallen umbrella.

"You screamed," the voice accused.

To her dismay, Eva found herself unable to rise. Stunned by the weakness in her knees, she wobbled to a sedately seated position on the pebbles.

Still the dizziness would not pass. Eva looked beseechingly toward the shadows separating themselves deep in the porch's interior. There, a man's broad shoulders tapered to a slender waist as he moved like liquid through lightening darkness, coming toward her.

Eva thought, I must get up. I must get away. It's not safe to sit here, waiting for him.

But she couldn't even remain upright.

I'm not really going to faint, am I? Eva demanded of herself in her distress as the blinding sunlight swam into green and then into black.

Eva roused to find herself flying through shifting darkness in strong arms. Dreamily, she thought that her father was alive again, and she must be a little girl, and those bulky shapes that loomed and receded all around them in the glaring dark were like monsters in a carnival spook house. But she was safe in a strong embrace and would never fear again.

It seemed a long time later that Eva came to fully enough to sit up. She gave a little cry of panic. She could see nothing. But as soon as the humiliating sound escaped her, a voice near her said, "It's all right. I'll get this lit in just a minute. You're okay."

Where was she? With what strange man that she didn't know?

Bright flashes of scenes outside the house lit her mind and left her head throbbing. The intruder had stepped gracefully, swiftly toward her as she sank under sunlight, his worried face suddenly close to hers, his pillowy bronze lips whispering against her cheeks something she could not understand. Up close, he was older than she guessed when he said that boyish, countrified "ma'am," his walnut skin finely traced across his forehead and down the sides of his mouth.

Eva realized she had fainted. And he, this stranger, had picked her up and carried her into someplace dark and dank. She could hear water far off, dripping.

"Where am I?"

"It's all right."

Time to get control of this situation. "I'll decide that," Eva said with authority. "I asked you where I am."

She could feel more than see that he had turned sharply toward her, taking into consideration her mistrust. He was too close. She must have thrust her face up near his when she sat up. And he had not honored a stranger's need for space and backed away.

What could she do to get some distance, some sense of safety? Surely not lie down again, vulnerable.

Eva pressed her palms behind her into the floor to get her bearings and scoot away from the man's intrusive warmth. Her hands sank into something thick beneath her. A sleeping bag? Yes, buoyed up from the floor on a mattress and what felt like the height of a box spring.

Eva gasped. Had some strange, strong man picked her up bodily and taken her to the place where he slept? Her sudden, unwanted attraction toward this man whose strength reminded her of the safety she'd felt in her father's arms was attacked by a sense of danger.

His behavior was inexcusably intimate. What was going on here?

A scratching sound, and a sliver of light flared beneath the man's pensive face. Up so close, alone together in sudden fiery light, his beauty, still and sculpted, was astonishing. Chiseled edges sharpened the curve of his lips and rounded nostrils. That little dip plummeting from nose to upper lip was a river flowing from breath to speech. Too private, too promising, to be exposed.

He pursed his lips, thinking. He turned to her, parting those lips to speak. For no reason that Eva could imagine, it occurred to her that his full lips must feel like cushions of dry warmth, his breath moist between them.

Eva slapped herself mentally and snapped out of this uncalled-for reverie. Lightheaded and fantasizing in the midst of obvious peril! She had been kidnapped by some nut, and it would do her no good that he was handsome if he. . . .

What was he planning to do with her?

"Where have you brought me?" she said sharply at precisely the same time that he said, "I've brought you into your own house. Don't worry."

Firelight in his glass-domed kerosene lamp-she had only seen such rustic things in supermarkets and thought they were curios, but he was using his-burned in his smoky irises. Was he thinking what his eyes seemed to say that he was thinking?

Did he really have trouble fixing his gaze on her eyes instead of letting it drop to the sunburned skin exposed from neck to bra, freed by the thinnest, skimpiest shirt she owned? Would her expanses of thin limbs, bronzed by travel through desert and swamp, appeal to him? Or did he share many African American men's disdain for skinniness and dark skin?

What did he think of her? What would he think if. . . . Eva wailed at herself, What's wrong with me?

But was the same thing wrong with him? Why had he whispered with his lips to her skin?

Eva's mind reeled in the face of her battling feelings. She must get control of her wild thoughts. Could he tell what she was thinking? If the humiliating passion that had overcome her was not normal, was not even shared, what could this stranger possibly make of her trembling?

Angry with herself, Eva yanked her attention back to her predicament. "Into my house?" She looked around.

The dark beyond the stranger's slender, shapely silhouette was too thick to be penetrated by his lantern's scraggly wick. "A special part of your house. It's the coolest place I could think of, to get you out of that heat. I'll have to tell you about it." He smiled. The slow spread of his lips over his even teeth sent warmth and shame radiating from Eva's insides throughout her body.

Eva didn't believe in instant passion. "You'll tell me about my house? I think you'd better tell me about yourself, instead. Who are you?" Eva demanded with genuine outrage.

How dare he come into her ordered emotional existence and shatter it with careless gestures. Who did he think he was, breaking into her house, carrying her in like a fainting bride, and taking advantage of her lightheadedness to make her feel smitten?

"I'm listening," Eva said. Her tone was tough, but her heart slammed. Weren't mass murderers often charmers?

As proof of the stranger's dishonesty, now that the lantern was lit, she was sure this couldn't be a house. The dark was black and as thick as fog. Barely at the edges of it, the lantern cast hints of light upon the outthrust edges of mossy stones protruding all around them.

A dungeon?

Eva had heard of such things. Weirdos stalked women and trapped them in subterranean rooms and did sadistic things to them. Internet lovers met and tortured each other before burying each other's dismembered corpses in gardens.

Now Eva pictured this man lurking in the shadows of the verandah waiting to pick off her little family, all three of them one by one, extracting cries of pain and revelations about where to find their traveler's checks as he took his sweet time killing them. Why hadn't they brought guns in their backpacks?

And where was a door out of this stony chamber of horrors?