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The Little Giant of Aberdeen County
By Baker, Tiffany
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2009 Baker, Tiffany
All right reserved.
The day I laid Robert Morgan to rest was remarkable for two reasons. First, even though it was August, the sky overhead was as rough and cold as a January lake; and second, it was the day I started to shrink.
I remember standing by the open grave, the muddy earth clotted like wet dung, waiting for Robert Morgan’s body to be lowered into the hole. The other, scattered mourners had begun to take chill and leave, but I wasn’t cold. There were layers and layers of me folded together like an accordion. So many that I would be warm in a blizzard. I could stand naked at the North Pole and be just fine.
I watched the coffin drop slowly into the ground, the supporting velvet ropes sliding under its belly like devious snakes. Before his death, the doctor had chosen a mahogany casket trimmed with brass and lined with a somber maroon satin. He brought a picture of it home to show me, and I examined it with suspicion. It looked phony somehow, like something you would find at Disneyland or a waxworks museum. All of it was too perfect. Now, however, as it settled with a lonely thump at what seemed like the bottom of the world, I saw that it would rot as soon as anything else down there, brass scrolls or no. I pictured Robert Morgan laid out in the elaborate box, his hair slicked down over his scalp like an otter’s, his spindly fingers gnarled together in a knot over his heart, awaiting judgment.
I had chosen the doctor’s favorite black suit for his burial, had brushed the cloth carefully before delivering it to the undertaker’s with a striped tie curled in one of the pockets, socks and underwear stuffed in another. I didn’t know why a dead man needed underpants, but there you had it. If Robert Morgan had been giving the directives, he would have insisted on aftershave, a belt, and cuff links, but since he wasn’t calling the shots anymore, I left these items home. Now that the doctor was shut up in his box and I would never see him again, I wondered what the undertaker had done to close the cuffs on his shirt. Did he keep a spare pair for such an occasion? Had he used wire or thread? The plastic twist ties from a garbage bag?
I threw a fistful of earth onto the coffin and held my breath for the accompanying thud. I thought of all the patients Robert Morgan had buried and wondered if any of them were down there, waiting to meet him. If so, were they a polite ensemble with decorously folded hands or a nasty throng, eager to anoint him with the press of rotten flesh? I thought of all the other Dr. Robert Morgans scattered around the cemetery—four of them in total—and imagined one subsuming the other like those cannibalistic Russian nesting dolls, the parts of them mixed together into a Frankenstein monster of local history.
I shifted my bulk, kicking more dirt and pebbles down on the casket. Along the sides of the grave, the exposed roots of weeds and trees dangled their anemic arms, as if pleading for clemency. I was reminded of Robert Morgan’s dying patients who would come to the house and beg the doctor to do something—anything—to end their pain. They used metaphors of burning, of hot steel, or of blades carving a mysterious alphabet into their bones, rewriting the familiar language of the senses until they were desperate and confused. That’s how Dr. Morgan saw them, at least. “Pay them no mind, Truly,” he’d say, shaking his head as a son would lead a mother down the sagging porch steps or a hunched woman would teeter down them on her last strength, her fiery hands wrung in despair. “They are no longer themselves.”
But I thought differently. Robert Morgan might have rolled the naked flesh of his patients under his palms, probed their organs with his skeleton fingers, but he never paid a whit of attention to their souls. If one ever did emerge, slit free of the body by an incandescent blade of pain, Robert Morgan simply would have had no reference point for it. He prescribed morphine, suggested supplements, provided balms and creams, but he had no answer for the naked yearning to get it all over and done with. In his mind, the body was a self-regulating clock. It would wind down on its own volition and in its own time, and the soul would just have to accept it.
Of course, toward the end of his own life, the doctor had really not been himself at all. Swaddled in the famous Morgan family quilt in his bedroom, he’d howled, and thrashed, and finally just whimpered, his whole body coated in a fine sheen of sweat that lent him a radiance I didn’t think he deserved. I brought him chicken broth on a tray and ice cubes to suck, cold compresses for his head. And when Robert Morgan grew delirious, crying out for his estranged wife and the son who’d left him, I took the doctor’s own advice to heart and paid him no mind. “Robert Morgan, you’re not yourself,” I’d say, gently dabbing the new crevasses in his lips with petroleum jelly.
Now all that was over, shut up forever in Robert Morgan’s brass-studded box. For the first time in a hundred and fifty years, Aberdeen was left with neither a Robert Morgan in it nor a doctor, but rather than feeling as raw as the open grave in front of me, I was surprised to find myself completely numb. I thought about returning to the house I’d lived in with Robert Morgan for the past decade, a dinner of roast beef and green beans covered and waiting for me on the stove, a table setting for one laid out in the kitchen, television later. But for the first time in my life, I wasn’t hungry.
I didn’t normally leave the doctor’s white-gabled house unless I could help it. My childhood companion, Amelia Dyerson, came to clean the doctor’s premises once a week, bringing groceries, and in the spring, summer, and early fall, Marcus Thompson, another childhood friend, clipped the garden to kingdom come. These visits—Marcus slurping lemonade on the back porch, a sodden bandanna slung around his neck; Amelia muttering over her feather duster—constituted enough society for me. There had also been Robert Morgan’s patients, of course, but they weren’t always in the mood to chat. They entered a different part of the house, anyway, and departed with their heads bowed, locked into themselves, chastened by the disobedience of their own bodies.
If anyone ever asked, I could have told them all about that feeling. How it felt, for instance, to watch as my limbs stretched and spread of their own volition, as if I were some sort of mutating lizard. What it was like to sit on the Morgan family furniture and hear it creak and complain, threatening to split for good if I eased back any farther. How, when I stepped on the scale in Robert Morgan’s examining room, the weights never wanted to balance but slid all the way to the ends of their metal strips, as if giving up in the monumental task of measuring me.
“Any bigger and you could get work in a sideshow, Truly,” Robert Morgan chuckled during the last exam he gave me, and noted my weight on one of the endless charts he kept. Somewhere in his filing cabinet, a growing library of papers told a thousand and one versions of the strange story of my body. The doctor exhaled on his stethoscope to warm it, then slipped the metal disk in between the complicated folds of my breasts. “You’re like the fat lady who died in the circus, and who was so big, she could only be moved by the hippo cart.” I sighed. I knew the story. He told it to me every time he examined me—as a kind of parable, I suppose, a fable about the laughable indignities of excess.
He moved the metal circle to the other side of my chest and arched his eyebrows. “It’s true. I promise you that. One hundred percent. Good thing you’re not in the circus, eh, Truly? By the way, how’s the heart? Any pangs or pains you want to share?” I shook my head and said nothing about the melancholic roots that were spreading through my body like willow reeds. Robert Morgan didn’t need to know anything about those, I thought, especially since he’d caused most of them.
Some people in this world are born bigger than life, and some grow to be that way, but I know it’s not a matter you can pick and choose. If it were, then I would opt to be doll-sized. Maybe even a dwarf. Then I’d have to be carried everywhere I went, ceremonially, in a sedan chair borne on the oiled shoulders of nubile young men. I would pick out a seat of gold with scrollwork of its own, maybe even a dragon or two, and hire children with clashing cymbals to accompany me, singing out my name. My life would be like a parade. As it happens, however, my feet are bigger than most men’s, along with my hands, my hips, my neck, and the vast expanse of my shoulders and back. And the only parade I’ve ever attended is the defunct May Day festival, where the mayor used to drive a gaggle of the town’s prettiest girls down Main Street in his convertible. Every year, it was the same. Dick Crane, senile in the end but still able to perform this one civic task, beeped the horn of his classic Caddy, and the girls all screamed and waved, hysterical with their own beauty.
Even before I gained all the weight, my body pressing outward like a balloon getting ready to take flight, I was always huge. Solid as granite, my father used to say, and twice as thick. Not like your sister, that’s for sure. Serena Jane takes after your mama. A real living doll. Which was, after all, the whole reason Robert Morgan wanted my sister in the first place, even if he had to stalk her and steal her away like the wolf in a fairy tale. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if it had been the other way around—if Serena Jane had been the one pursuing Robert Morgan. Most likely he would have turned tail and run, his long, lupine teeth chattering in fear. Robert Morgan never liked a thing in his life unless he got to take the first bite out of it, and he never let a thing go, either, until it was chewed all the way down to skin and bone. Even his narrow, prowling walk told you he was a man of limitless appetite—hungry all the time and yet never filled all the way up. Not like Serena Jane, who was about as dense as spun sugar, who picked and pushed at her food and grew so light that she eventually flew away, and certainly not like me, who always ate what was given to me but who, anyone could see, always ended up paying double for it.
After the burial, I veered from the main path of the cemetery, headed deeper into the graveyard to pay my respects to other souls. If I’d turned around and looked, I would have noticed that the trail of my footsteps through the grass was growing lighter and less emphatic, but I just trudged with my nose pointing to the bulging wilderness of my abdomen, my chins tucked up tight against my neck, my thoughts lost in the familiar ocean of my own labored breathing. The other mourners gathered themselves, shaking the sound of dirt thudding on the doctor’s coffin from their ears, drifting back toward town and the wake.
The jagged iron gates of the cemetery glittered in the distance, the black spikes sticking up into the darkening afternoon like a row of rotten teeth. They reminded me how Robert Morgan’s breath had stunk right before he died, as if his body were cleaning house, sweeping out all its rank corners and dubious crannies before it gave up its ghost once and for all.
A bitter gust of wind skidded up behind me and lashed at the backs of my legs. I was wearing a black rayon dress I’d sewn myself—a sacklike, drooping shroud of a garment that did little to disguise my bumps and bulges—and no stockings because there just weren’t any that would fit. On my feet, I had the black workman’s boots I wore from October to April, and over everything I’d draped a moth-eaten greatcoat from the doctor’s attic, which still only barely gripped the plinths of my shoulders.
At the burial, I’d stood with Amelia. I knew that people were whispering and nudging one another, darting significant looks when I heaved myself right up to the grave’s edge, panting like a dying elephant. At least we don’t need to worry about her falling in, Vi Vickers had muttered to Sal Dunfry.
Sal had giggled behind her imported calfskin glove. She’d get stuck halfway down. I blushed, but Amelia, who’d cleaned the doctor’s office for the past ten years and probably had enough dirt on him to bury him herself, pointed out that I was an angel to have put up with Robert Morgan for so long and that no one, least of all decent people with good sense, should be mocking me. Sal shut up then but cast another dubious glance at my lank hair and fleshy limbs and concluded that Amelia Dyerson was blind as well as dumb. She gave a backward glance over her shoulder as she left the graveyard, watching as I lumbered away from her. Truly’s no angel, I heard Sal snicker to Vi, rearranging the buttery folds of her cashmere scarf closer against the unusual weather. Why, for one thing, she’d take up half of heaven, and for another, she’s too big to get off the ground.
An irate crow flapped out of the nearby trees, squawking its displeasure, leaving its bare branch vibrating in the unseasonable cold. The noise made me look around at the world, the ground cosseted with a freak blanket of frost, the headstones stark as ancient relics. I peered up at the sky, the light dwindling to an echo of azure, and watched the crow flap its way to the horizon. And at that moment, the hard stone I’d been carrying around in my chest—the one that weighed as much as all of Aberdeen’s tombstones piled together, the one that kept me pinned inside Robert Morgan’s house, even on days when the town roses made the air into a honeyed liqueur—that stone began to melt, sending oily tears slicking down my cheeks. I wiped them away, ashamed to be blubbering over something as silly as a crow bobbing in a great big sky, but relieved, nonetheless, to be standing under something huge enough to contain me. You see, for the first time in longer than I could remember, I’d found something larger than me.
Technically speaking, I guess you could say I killed Robert Morgan, but I did it only because he insisted on it, and because death had clearly already gotten its mealy hands on him, and because I knew the very act of asking must have made him madder than hell.
“Look at me,” he’d cackle from the foul nest of covers on his bed, “and then take a look at you. It just doesn’t seem right.” I knew what he meant. Let’s just say I had more than my fair share of resources shoring up my bones. “You could live through two winters back to back, Truly,” he rasped. “You could swallow the whole damn world, and no one would notice.”
He was lying under his great-grandmother’s famous quilt, the one embroidered all over with flowers and vines, some of them nice and neat inside a diamond-edged border and the rest running riot around the edges. It was a peculiar piece of work all right. In fact, if you looked at it hard enough, you might get to thinking it was almost two quilts—the tidy, inner square worked up all careful and the crazy border that looked like a floral explosion. That’s what I’d concluded, at least, after ten years of staring at the thing.
Soon enough, the doctor quit talking altogether. At first, I welcomed this development, banging into his room with trays of food I knew he couldn’t eat but tormented him with anyway. “That story about the dead lady in the hippo cage?” I asked, waving a spoonful of tapioca under his nose. “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. So what if it’s true?” I watched him shake his head, then popped the pudding into my own mouth and rolled the beads across my tongue, satisfied with their slick sweetness. “For one thing, what’d they do with the hippo? And for another, you don’t even know any of the details that would make the story really good. For instance, what kind of coffin did they put her in? Or did they just throw her body in the cage and pull her along to a giant hole in the ground?”
I leaned down so close, I knew he could see the tiny hairs that limned my upper lip. “Do you want to know the difference between a good story and the truth?” When he didn’t respond, I went ahead and gave him the answer. “The little bits, Robert Morgan. That’s all. If you get those right, you can get away with murder.” I smiled and patted his arm. Then I finished off the tapioca.
After a few days, however, I found myself unsettled by the silence between us. For twenty years, I’d endured his barbs and insults, but now I could feel his stony stare roving over my flesh, as if he wanted to devour me raw. I’d watch out of the corner of my eye as he cricked his jaw open and shut like a ventriloquist’s dummy, trying to make a noise and failing, and then I’d collect his untouched tray, half wishing he’d snarl at me like the old days and half hoping he wouldn’t.
In spite of their best intentions, death has always had a way of stalking the Morgan men, as far back as any of them could remember, at least as far back as the history of Aberdeen. The first Robert Morgan arrived in Aberdeen from the South, just as the Civil War was winding down. In the war, he’d served as a surgeon, up until the very end when Sherman’s hot swath of vengeance proved too much. Death, the first Robert Morgan decided as he followed lines of ghost-eyed soldiers through the fetid air of the South, was a perpetual motion machine—a spiked instrument of butchery that would roll on as long as there were men willing to feed it. He was not one of them.
He deserted just outside of Savannah, stowing himself in the wrecked husks of plantations and barns, making his way north via the coast, and then, when he hit Delaware, he turned inland and worked his way through the Tuscarora Mountains, all the way up to New York State. Everywhere he went, he inquired the same thing: Did anyone know a way to ward off death? He was shown crucifixes, amulets of twine and grass, rosary beads, and an eagle’s feather. He would examine each object politely, then hand it back to its owner and shoulder his pack, his mind already racing ahead of him.
By the time he got to New York State, the answer to his question started to change. “I don’t know ’bout scarin’ death away for good,” one gap-toothed farmer told him, his skin as wrinkled as linen, “but you might try askin’ the folks in Aberdeen. They’re all older than a bunch of mummies. If anyone’s gonna know, it’s them.”
Intrigued, Robert Morgan accepted the man’s offer of his barn for the evening, and that night, Robert Morgan slept peacefully and deep, awakening well before dawn to hoist his dwindling pack before heading the opposite direction of the sunset. He didn’t have the foggiest notion where he was, but it didn’t matter. For the first time since he’d deserted, Robert Morgan had a destination to get to.
When he arrived in Aberdeen at the onset of winter, he found the population of the village in the middle of an influenza epidemic, with just one woman treating them all. Her name was Tabitha Dyerson, and she was the relative of a famous witch.
“Judith Dyerson. Burned at the stake,” Ebert Pickerton, the proprietor of Aberdeen’s alehouse, told Robert with a wink. “A heretic. The whole family upped and left Massachusetts after that. But some say”—and here the innkeeper leaned conspiratorially close to Robert Morgan—“they brought her shadow book with ’em. That’s where Tabitha gets the healing touch from.”
Robert Morgan tilted back and took a blessed breath of neutral air. “Is that why everyone here lives so long? Because of old Judith’s secrets?”
Ebert Pickerton’s belly danced with laughter. “Hell no, son,” he brayed, smacking his palm down on the counter. “That’s on account of our bad tempers. The good Lord won’t have us.” His face fell, a balloon caving in on itself. “Lately, though, seems people in this town are dropping off like anyone else. You can go out and see for yourself.” So Robert Morgan went to Mass on Sunday, toting the medical instruments he’d stolen from the army, to offer his services as a physician.
The first patient he attended was a child, a girl about nine years old. She screamed when he approached her. To the delirious child, Robert Morgan, gaunt from seven months of walking, his beard too wild for any scissors to tame, was an evil Father Christmas.
“You’d best go,” the girl’s father told Robert Morgan, his hand clamped firmly on the doctor’s elbow. “We’ll call for Tabitha.”
Robert Morgan raised his eyebrows. “Your daughter needs proper medical supervision.”
The man just shrugged, opened the door, and ushered Robert Morgan into the miserable November cold. “Tabby has herbs,” he said. “They’ve worked before.”
Robert Morgan acquired his second patient after a thorough session with Aberdeen’s barber. This time it was an ailing grandmother, down with the flu. Seventy-three and prune-faced, she lay stoutly in a brass bedstead—the bed she’d been born in and the bed she was prepared to die in—watching as Robert Morgan unwrapped his instruments. Her beady eyes roved over him like a chicken guarding an egg. “Please,” she whimpered. “I want Tabitha.” Robert Morgan sighed deeply—a great defeated wind sinking to his boot tips—and wrapped his instruments back in their chamois. Her hulking son gave an apologetic half-smile. Tabitha, at least, wouldn’t charge anything expect maybe a pumpkin or two or a loaf of his wife’s molasses bread.
Robert Morgan retreated to the shadow-shrouded back room he had taken at Widow Dunfry’s house with a small bottle of whiskey wrapped neatly in plain brown paper. So far, Aberdeen had stonewalled his search for longevity, refused his good-intentioned attempts to cure, and even its weather was foul.
Robert Morgan took another, bitter swill of Ebert’s homemade whiskey and sank farther into the widow’s mildewed armchair, reviewing the afternoon’s case. Tabby has herbs, he recalled the little girl’s father saying. Robert Morgan snorted, expelling a small plug of snot. Skullduggery, that’s what it was. He tipped the bottle back to his lips, upending it. The liquid ignited in his throat like a firecracker. He pursed his lips, the sear ghost of rye singeing the insides of his cheeks, his nose, and the secret canals of his ears.
When he woke, he found himself in bed. He hitched himself onto his elbows, feeling his eyes swim in his head, losing his balance. Then he realized he wasn’t alone.
The diminutive woman sitting in the corner sighed, put down her knitting, and walked over to him. She reached under his wrist to test his pulse with lily-stalk fingers. “You’re over the worst,” she told him, sweeping back to her place in the corner, her skirts whispering like contrary angels. “When you can, you should bathe.” She began to leave.
“Wait,” Robert Morgan cried, his voice muted by phlegm. “How ill have I been?”
The woman cocked her head. “You’re over the worst,” she said again. “You’ll soon be better.”
Robert Morgan hitched himself onto his elbows again, wavering. “You’re the witch.”
Tabitha Dyerson drew herself straight, narrowing her eyes like a snake getting ready to strike. “I’m as Christian as you are, sir,” she snapped. “Possibly even more so. You owe me your life.”
It wasn’t until hours later that Robert Morgan realized she’d taken the last of Ebert Pickerton’s whiskey with her.
She lived on a farm on the outskirts of town, Robert Morgan learned, with her father and brother, the father swimming in the mad sea of old age, the brother a recluse since he’d returned from the war. Robert Morgan trudged over the rough track of mud that served as a road, announcing his presence at her door with three harsh knocks, the only kind he knew how to give anymore. His bare knuckles stung from the cold.
She spied him from the window and answered the door warily, her hands clutching the wood. From around the sides of her seeped the scent of lemons, of gingerbread and camphor. Feminine odors that Robert Morgan had forgotten existed in the world.
“You’ve recovered.” Her voice rang as flat as his raps on the door. Robert Morgan produced from his pocket an apple—a gnarled piece of fruit, but an offering all the same.
Tabitha received it warily, tucking it in the depths of her apron. “Do you have a specific reason for calling?”
Robert Morgan could feel the heat radiating out of the house and sensed that she was impatient to be rid of him. He listed on his cracked boot heels like a ship about to sink, then brought an arm forward to steady himself. Slowly, the world settled back into some semblance of order, the porch boards still warped, the chimney still aslant, but all the pieces more or less fitted together. It was probably, Robert Morgan decided, as close as he would ever again come to being arranged. Tabitha folded her arms and waited. “I have come,” he stammered, “with a proposal.”
They were married on Michaelmas, the ceremony witnessed by Widow Dunfry and Ebert Pickerton. They celebrated Christmas with a goose and chestnut stuffing. The brother drank too much cider and wheeled about on the wooden leg he would never get used to. The father slumbered over his dish, and Robert retired early to the corner of the parlor he had transformed into a makeshift laboratory. No one sang.
Three things amazed Robert Morgan about his new life. The first was that no one asked him about his past. The people of Aberdeen just seemed to regard him as Tabitha Dyerson’s new husband, and a prior existence neither occurred nor mattered to them. The second thing that needled him was that even though he was a doctor, he had yet to heal one single patient in the town. His remedies either failed, or the people dumped his powders in their chicken feed. They unwound his bandages and replaced them with Tabitha’s poultices made from crushed wolfsbane and pig’s urine.
The final source of wonder, of course, was his wife. Impervious to the wild whip of a New England winter, moon-skinned under the covers when he took her at night, circumspect in all matters relating to herself. With her father, she was patient, forgiving; with her brother, resolved; and with Robert Morgan, she was serene.
“Tell me what your earliest memory is,” he demanded one night after lovemaking. The air outside was so cold, the stars appeared to be shivering.
Tabitha loosed one of her arms from the sheets and brushed a piece of hair away from her eyes. When she spoke, her breath escaped in a visible wisp. “Gathering herbs,” she said. “An iron pot bubbling on the fire. The odor of wet leaves.” She half closed her eyes and smiled but offered no elaboration.
“What is your favorite food?” Robert Morgan asked. They’d been married only a short time, but she already knew that he liked venison stew with nutmeg and juniper berries, that he preferred whiskey to ale, soda bread to brown, while he could only guess at her tastes. It bothered him a little, this advantage she had over him.
Tabitha stretched one of her long arms toward him, and he grew excited at the thought of her touch, but she merely rearranged the blankets closer around her chin. “I eat the same as you, husband,” she whispered. “We are one flesh now. Please, let’s sleep.”
On his better days, Robert Morgan indulged her behavior, told himself he was lucky to have wed an obedient and untroublesome woman. On his bad days, he skulked in the parlor, cursing her witch blood.
By June, Tabitha’s belly was drum-tight under her altered skirts, the baby riding so high that Robert Morgan was certain it must be a girl. Tabitha merely murmured over his predictions. She dreamed whole afternoons away, wrapped in the floral quilt her grandmother had begun. Sometimes, Robert Morgan found her replacing the batting, mending the quilt’s weak seams, shoring them up for the generations.
He moved them into town, and when people called at the new house, it was Robert who greeted them, ushering them into the parlor’s laboratory, asking them to breathe against the discerning disk of his stethoscope. On the shelf above his head, he had jars of tablets ordered from Boston, powders from New York. He had a canister of ether and a paper cone to administer it. When Tabitha’s father died, Robert Morgan turned his room into an examining office and then built a whole separate cottage in the back for his practice. He quit accepting eggs and skeins of yarn for payment, demanding a deposit of silver up front. It took only the turning away and subsequent death of one young mother, spotted with fever, for the town to learn that death is an impatient master. Even the poorer households acquired clocks and began putting pennies in the bank for the hours the doctor charged.
By the time his son, Bertie, was five, Robert Morgan had hired a young man to keep his books and appointments. He had finished the cottage in back of the house and turned it into an office and an examining room. The recalcitrant brother moved back to the defunct farm. Tabitha had two more children after Bertie. With each successive pregnancy, she grew quieter and quieter, until she finally ceased to speak at all. The bouquets of herbs she was accustomed to fix to the rafters lost their shape, then their color, and finally relinquished their earthy scents, crumbling into twigs and dust. She stayed in her room, working at her quilt, adding pieces, making it bigger so that its ends draped off the bed and swept the dusty floor. Tabitha lay in the covers, wishing her arms had no bones.
Occasionally, Robert Morgan savaged the house looking for old Judith’s shadow book, the one Ebert Pickerton told him about on his first day in town. He ripped apart the larder, biting indiscriminately into pork pies and wedges of cheese. He knocked down the woodpile, upended Tabitha’s linen cupboard. He pried apart floorboards, thumbed page by page through the family Bible, then burned the whole thing. He ordered a new Bible from Boston, and when it arrived, it was bound in supple calfskin, its pages gilded, the cover embossed with his initials and his alone, in real gold. He penned the names of his children inside, flourishing the dips and curls of the letters, lining them up perfectly on the page, but he left Tabitha Dyerson the witch, the crone he’d tried to make a Morgan, off the family register.
At church, Robert Morgan’s lips moved, but it wasn’t the words of God he was uttering. Instead, he was silently cataloging his stores to himself: carbolic powder, laudanum, aspirin, alcohol, ether. In his experience, salvation came droplet-sized, issued from the pinched nose of a beaker, from tiny grains of granules measured and slid into an envelope. The prospect of heaven had been bottled and stoppered by him and his brethren. It was easily dispensed.
One morning, while shaving, he ran the razor over himself by feel, averting his gaze from the aging stranger in the glass, and when he turned back to his image, he found he’d nicked himself. A trickle of blood wormed its way down a crease on his face and cavorted along his jaw. He turned to Tabitha, but she was marooned in a melancholic swamp in the middle of their bed, her brow as smooth as an egg. She ignored him. Her hands were twisting and turning, knotting and looping. Under them, as if by magic, the outlines of nightshade, belladonna, and hemlock bloomed in silken leaves across the quilt. A mortal garden stitched for the immortal soul.
Robert Morgan thrust his jaw out toward his wife. “Help,” he demanded crossly, and received the press of Tabby’s little fingers, wrapped in a square of cast-off linen. As if by magic, the blood stopped, and Robert Morgan scowled. He wondered briefly how Tabitha did it, but the clock downstairs chimed, and he rushed to put on his hat. For him, knowledge was a plain thing, like a neatly labeled bottle, transparent and tucked on a shelf. It was not in his character to pick and follow the threads of an idea like a woman unraveling a skein of yarn. Besides, he was running late.
“Thank you,” he growled, and loped out of the room, his thoughts already on salvation, his belief that he was in charge of dying in the town of Aberdeen fully intact—an idea that would persist for the next hundred and fifty years until I came along and overturned the apple cart of history.
Excerpted from The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Baker, Tiffany Copyright © 2009 by Baker, Tiffany. Excerpted by permission.
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