"Skipping Stones"
  Neil Ayres
  E. Sedia
"Death's Little Sister"
  Mariev Finnegan
"Dirt Roads and Ka"
  Berrien C. Henderson
"Lady Glory and the Knave of Spades"
  Nicole Kornher-Stace
"Hard Little Shadows in the Early Morning Sunlight"
  James Owens
"Keep Calm and Carillon"
  Genevieve Valentine
"Problems of the Solid State"
  Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

"Off the Map"
  Ann Walters
"Homage to Al"
  F. J. Bergmann
  F. J. Bergmann
"How To Not Be Here When The Universe Dies"
  Marion Boyer

Dirt Roads and Ka

by Berrien C. Henderson

The sun beat the boy's head as he tromped along the dirt road. Nearby stood a short bridge where lazy tannin water swirled beneath. His gray baseball cap sported a dark sweat ring, a tad whitish with encrusted salt of past goings-out, but he didn't mind the heat even though a few lines of sweat wrote mysterious trails along his olive skin. His jug ears caught the gentle stir of a stifling breeze along with barking dogs somewhere farther down the road. But on a day like today, there was no reason for him to worry about the sun's battering ram, nor its compatriot, mocking breeze. Fishing must be done, besides an errand or two, and the road was narrow ahead at the bridge. Tree limbs stretched over to offer shade.

Among twisted, tangled bullis vines and drooping fern fronds, he glimpsed shapes in the miscellany of flora the way other people observed shapes in the amorphous churning of clouds. Pareidolia floated in his mind—woman's face this time. She winked at him when a leaf flapped in a breath of breeze.

He knew he didn't have long to fish. As he began readying his cane pole, he heard a scrape and scuttle on the tired, old wood of the bridge.

An old woman had stopped to stare at him. Steel-gray hair, tousled by a sudden dry breeze, concealed the slight palsied tic of her head. She stood in the middle of the dirt road and looked back and forth, caught in eddies of whirling summer air. Mumbling to herself, she shuffled a few more feet down the hard-packed, spider web-cracked clay. One faded pink slipper adorned her left foot. The right, bare. She wore a brown overcoat covered in the oppressive scent of mothballs despite the temperature's having risen well into the eighties.

She walked a few steps, stopped, then grumbled a curse. Moved on.

Then she noticed him noticing her.

"Hello," she said.

"Ma'am." He watched her shaking. Her right hand trembled a bit, too. He had only seen her a few times in passing, sometimes sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch, other times just standing at the end of her driveway apparently watching the pond across the dirt road from her property. He thought of the time he and his father had ridden past, his father saying, "She real old, that one. See them liverspots? Only real old folks got them."

And the boy had said, "Who looks after her?"

"Daughter down the road, house back of the pecan orchard. Go by several times a day. Nurses come some, too, I think." His father had shrugged. "God, too."

"She wander off much?" For some reason, the analogue of his own walkabouts and some elderly neighbor's dovetailed in his mind.

"She do. You see her out and about, you make sure to help her."

"Yes, sir."

So, there stood the old woman, eyes seeing through him a thousand miles. He set his cane pole down and adjusted his hat with its crushed brim that looked like a snout. They stood several yards apart—curiosities each to the other.

"Would you walk with me to the end of this road?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am." He blinked his eyes and swallowed, then cleared his throat. Maybe she was as thirsty as he; a breath of dust gathered in the air and wandered past.

Fishing and errands would have to wait.

As the boy guided the woman up the road, the wind buffeted them, and in the plowed field dust devils pirouetted and glissaded from furrow to furrow. He hoped Mr. Thornton would plant peanuts this year. In the fall the smell of the harvested peanuts, flipped from the moist earth, would cast a thick, green-nut aroma in the evening air. He would steal an armload from the corner of the field nearest his house and thought Mr. Thornton knew, but the man had never said anything if he did.

A dog, rib-showing thin and splotched with mange, trotted along the ditch toward them, and the woman's hand clenched the boy's forearm—her gnarled-knuckled hand an ancient corvid's claw. Surprised by the quickness of her grabbing his arm, he nevertheless reached over with his free hand to offer a comforting pat.

"It'll be okay, ma'am," he said.

"Don't like them." The anxiety of seeing the dog magnified her tic.

The dog growled.

The woman froze, her grip iron, yet the palm clammy.

"Don't worry," said the boy, his forehead crinkling with determination under the cap's bill. To the dog: "Get! Get on outta here!"

A rictus snarl from the animal before it turned around and trotted off. Little puffs of dust plumed in its wake.

"See? Told you it'd be okay, ma'am." He smiled at her with neat little pearls.

She nodded awkwardly because of the palsy. "Thank you." A veil lifted, and new light sprang into her eyes. "Where are we?"

The boy paused. He thought of her walking the dirt road for so many evenings for so many months, then nothing until now. He remembered his father telling him that the old woman was wasting away "like old folks're wont to do."

He cleared his throat and struggled the way children sometimes struggle when speaking to the elderly.

"Would you like me to walk you back to your house?" said the boy, almost hoping she'd forgotten she had asked him to walk her to the end of this dirt road. Then he felt guilty for thinking it. Between his parents' property and the old woman's house lay a mile of clay ribbon, and much of that behind them.

Frowning, she said, "No. Not right now. Could you help me to your house, if it's not too much? It's not that far away."

She was right; it was only a hundred yards distant. She wanted to rest, but not now. Not yet. He was a helpful boy, too. "I recall a time your mother and aunt brought me some homemade pickle relish."

He perked up, surprised by her comment. "Yes, ma'am! Auntie and Mama, they do make it fine."

"Might they put up much?"

"You mean like jams and such?"

"Yes. Blackberry preserves are my favorite."

"They was a good batch last summer. You like maters?"

"With some rice."

"Had me some for lunch."

The woman stared off into the field, where the dog had stopped and followed their passage. When she looked back at the boy, and both their shadows leaned behind them—his shadow-head turned to some long-snouted contortion, his jug ears pointy and high. She turned to him, and he smiled, then kneeled a moment in the dust of the road and drew with his finger:

"Pardon me," she whispered as the veil shifted yet again.

As he stood, he offered a tiny smile. "It's okay, ma'am."

The trek continued. Occasionally, small sandy rocks scrunched underfoot, and the old woman walked awkwardly because of her wearing only that one slipper. The boy chose not to speak overmuch. Those old eyes looked ahead, but the boy thought not at his parents' small house, more beyond it to the far treeline, darkening as the sun merged with earthen shadow.

"Now, look both ways," she urged gently when they reached the highway. The yellow and white lines had faded, and tenacious grasses had punched through the gray gravel pavement near the shoulder.

The boy did as she bade, and, pronouncing it safe for crossing with a nod of his head, led the old woman to the other side.

Lonely stood the house, a cedar-sided, two-bedroom, simple domicile that had been in the boy's family for several generations, back when local men knew mostly sharecropping and owed each other at once everything and nothing. A throng of cats scattered at the boy and the old woman's approach, and the woman giggled at them. Light and shadow flirted on the ground as pecan trees swayed with the wind.

"Here, careful of the steps," he said.

Holding out his hand, he guided her up the front stoop's steps—one, two, three, four—onto the porch, then ushered her into the house. The screen door was wide open, the windows up, and the scent of sausage grease redolent.

"Those are Davis and Lee sausage." A slight smile creased the old woman's face.

"Yes, ma'am."

She sat in the nearest kitchen chair. The pantry door yawned, and on several shelves stood mason jar after mason jar of vegetables, all in delicate states of suspension and preservation. On the pantry floor stood four clay jars whose lids sat just in front of the dark, open jars and resembled heads: human, jackal, falcon, baboon.

The jackal-headed lid gave an impassive stare, its clay-lidded eyes offering a slow blink against the struggling rays of light spilling into the kitchen through a window above the sink, where a cow-shaped soap dispenser perched on its haunches, udders forward. On either side of the window hung two foot-long shelves decorated with porcelain cows to complete the bucolic, bovine motif. The old woman smiled a heavy-lidded smile. The boy was more aware now of the old woman's tributaries of wrinkles.

An avian flutter bustled through her chest, and her eyes widened suddenly. A metallic taste bloomed on her tongue.

"Quite a walk," she said. "Might I rest some more?"

The boy just stared at her. Sweat glistened on her liverspotted forehead. He wished his folks were home. His mama and auntie would be gone all day to the farmer's market, and his daddy had gone to do some pulpwood work. His father would know how to weight the matter of this old woman, but all the boy could do was hope he was doing right by her.

He led her to the living room. The tick-tick-tick of the ceiling fan pestered the room's silence. He showed her to an oversized recliner, its corduroy upholstery a faded gold, and helped her with the handle to lean the chair back.

"Oh, that's better than a couch or loveseat, thank you." She grimaced as the recliner footrest shot up, causing the chair to shudder.

"Get you something to drink?" he said.

"Water, please."

The last of the day's sunlight suffused the room, and dust motes gamboled in the gold beams. A breeze billowed the curtains. She could just see outside.

The mange-riddled dog had followed them. As it passed through the yard, it paused, sensing the old woman's eyes upon it. When it stared at her, she grew distraught, although she knew there was no danger (and, oh, the orange pills back at her own bedside could help little). Outside in a crepe myrtle, a sparrow had lighted and twitched its head, almost spying in on the old woman, who smiled at the bird.

Something let go, uncoiling and extending, and she managed a smile. Home seemed far away. Family forgotten. But the old woman had needed to cross the road. And her breath unspooled from her lungs as a thought wormed through her head—the need to say "Thank you" for the relish those women had given her a while back. Then she felt heaviness in her bones balancing heaviness in her eyelids. The boy wouldn't mind, not begrudge an old woman her sleep. Her tic had subsided, her head stiller, and the stillness and peace of its absence gave the old woman a longed-for comfort.

Soft footfalls, sneakers easing into the room. The boy returned with the glass of water, and seeing that the old woman had dozed off, set the drink on an end table near the recliner. The air had grown thick. He could smell her sweat and that ubiquitous grandmama's stale perfume, underscored by the mothballs' companion scent. She looked so small now, swallowed by that brown overcoat. Its tails looked like the tips of flaccid wings resting just under her thighs.

"I appreciate you opening the road for me," she whispered as a final drowsiness sneaked in on a breath of humid wind.

Afraid of answering, the boy sat on the couch and watched her shallow breathing and waited beneath the gentle drafts of the ceiling fan. He removed his hat and bunched and twisted it in his hands. He looked past the old woman and out the open window; the sparrow flittered off, leaving the crepe myrtle branch nodding in its wake. The boy felt the evening quite hard now along with the loneliness of his own company as he heard a long exhale, nothing more than a sigh, and he mumbled a prayer as he glanced outside the window again, seeing back down that long, open road.

Berrien C. Henderson lives in the deepest, darkest wilds of southeast Georgia with his wife and two children. He teaches high school English, is a long-time martial artist, and has a big geeky spot in his heart for literature, speculative fiction, and comic books.