THE WORLD BY NIGHT
Sadie was sixteen when her parents died, and the gravedigger told her he would charge her less if she’d help him. Typhoid had killed so many people in town that he was tired of digging.
“Can we do it at night?” she asked. Her skin could not weather the long hours in the sun, and in the glare of day she would be nearly blind.
He agreed, and so there they were, twilight ’til dawn, shaving slivers of hard-packed earth from the walls of the graves. They had the coffins lowered by morning and the gravedigger looked at Sadie’s flushed face and said, “Go on and get inside now. I’ll finish this. I’ll do it proper. You can have your own service tonight.”
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” she asked. She’d been wanting to ask all night. When she was tired or nervous her irises often jumped back and forth uncontrollably, as though she were being shaken, and she knew they were doing so now. It unsettled people, and more than one preacher had tried to cast spirits out of her, to no effect.
The gravedigger looked at the earth for a long time, the pits with the bodies resting at the bottoms. “I saw another girl like you once, at a freak show in Abilene,” he said. “White skin and hair like yours, eyes like I never saw, almost violet. They called her the Devil’s Bride, but I think she would’ve liked to’ve been married to a good man, tending chickens and baking biscuits just like anyone else. Anyhow, you’re a fine digger.”
Now Sadie is twenty and it is June and her husband Zachary has been gone for two months, moving southeast across the Ozarks and maybe farther, to look for work. She is not afraid of being alone. She was alone for two years before she met Zachary and she had thought she would spend the rest of her life that way. Just knowing he will come back sooner or later is enough.
She sleeps in the sod house through the bright hours of the day when most women do their chores, saves her work for early morning and dusk. When the dark has settled she walks across the prairie, making her way by scent and feel. She finds some clumps of grass that smell like onion, others like sweet basil, others still covered in silvery down that tickles her fingertips.
As the days pass, she saves up things to tell Zachary about when he comes home: A patch of sweet blackberries by the side of the pond where she draws the wash water. A hollow where a covey of grouse nest. Most important and mysterious of all, a hole in the ground with nothing but darkness inside, about the size of a barrel top. The grasses there move even when there is no breeze, and the hole breathes cool air. Once, she lowered a lantern into it at the end of her clothesline and saw a slope of jagged stone leading down. She stuck her head into the opening and breathed, and the air smelled just like the walls of her parents’ graves.
When Sadie first met Zachary it was dusk and he was drunk. She was sweeping the front steps of the house she had lived in with her parents, and had a pot of elderberry jam boiling on the stove inside. A man stopped at the gate and said, “Appaloosa.” Sadie kept sweeping, but the word brought to mind the horses, stark white with a dappling of dark spots, that the Indians rode across the plains. “Appaloosa,” the man said again. “Appaloosa, I’m talking to you.” He sauntered up to her and took her face in his hand, fumes of whiskey and turpentine exuding from his clothes. He had straight black hair to his shoulders and fingers that were strong and calloused. Sadie stood very still as he rubbed her chin with his thumb, then showed her the dark purple smear of elderberry juice that stained it.
“Not real spots at all,” he said. “You’re in disguise. You must be one of those Arab horses like the kings and queens ride, white from head to shoes.” He licked his thumb clean. Sadie didn’t say anything, just tightened her grip on the broom handle, but he dropped his hand and stepped back and bowed to her lightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, and just as quickly as he’d appeared, he was gone.
She finished sweeping the steps and went inside. Looking in the glass, she could see that her whole pale face was spotted with the dark juice, her hands, too. She wiped herself clean with a damp cloth and went back to the canning, not thinking she’d ever see the man again. But he did come back the next day, and knocked on the door like any gentleman. The sound startled Sadie awake in her parents’ old feather bed, and she crept into the living room in her nightgown. Through the curtains she could just make out the shape of a man walking away down the front path. When she cracked the door open, there was a handful of dusty flowers on the stairs and a note. The grocer read it for her later: “My name is Zachary Pollard and I live at the boardinghouse by the bank and this is a gift for you.”
He came every day after that, too, though once he learned better, he came in the evening, and they sat on the porch steps with a candle between them and talked. Her parents had been dead two years and he was the first person since their death to speak to her about anything more important than the weather or the cost of flour. He was, he liked to say, mostly orphan himself. His mother was a Chinook Indian, but she had died when he was a boy and now he had nothing left of her but her songs and her language and a fine beaded bangle that he kept wrapped in a handkerchief at the bottom of his trunk. His father was a Scotch-Irish peddler whom he had not seen in a dozen years. None of this seemed to sadden him. Though he was only twenty, he had a hundred thrilling stories to tell, had traveled much of the country and met all manner of people. “But none like you, Appaloosa,” he would say. Sadie had often wished she looked like everyone else, but after she met Zachary she stopped wishing it. He drank her in with his eyes as though the very sight of her were delightful.
She worried it would not last. During the months when she and Zachary were courting, she was convinced every day that he would change his mind and leave her. The day they were married she held his arm so tight she left crimps in the fabric of his shirt, and to put the ring on her finger he had to pry her loose.
By the time the last hot days of summer come, she is restless. Even the weather seems impatient. Great masses of blue-black cloud gather above the prairie, and lightning cracks sideways at the horizon while the wind sets her hair whipping about her face. Times like these the world feels more alive than any other, like she is only a mosquito resting on the hide of some great beast.
But when the storms end, the stillness is intolerable. She opens Zachary’s trunk and riffles the pages of his few small books between her fingers, wishing for the thousandth time that she could read them. She left school at eight when the schoolmistress complained that she was too much of a distraction to the other children, and that she still had not managed to learn her letters. When Sadie failed to learn them even from her mother, her parents took her to a doctor, who said her eyes were weak in a way he could not fix, that she was oversensitive to light, and farsighted; she would not learn to read and probably would not be much of a seamstress. He gave her a pair of dark glasses and sent her home. Standing on her front porch, Sadie hooked the glasses over her ears and looked at the people and horses moving through the artificial dusk the glass created. Brilliant bits of light still stabbed in from the sides of the lenses, and, though she could see better, people stared at her even more than they had before.
She sets the books aside and carefully unpacks the rest of the trunk. Here is the shirt Zachary was married in, a spare horse blanket, a bundle of coins, a wrinkled handkerchief folded in neat quarters, and a long coil of rope. Sadie unwinds it and feels the whole length to satisfy herself that it is sound, and, finding it so, she coils it again. From beside the stove she takes the stout iron bar she uses to stir the fire. She slips a handful of matches into her dress pocket. With the iron bar in one hand and the lantern and rope in her other, she goes outside.
She moves as quickly as she can to the cave entrance and ties one end of the rope to the iron bar, then hammers the bar into the earth with a stone until she believes it will hold her weight. After one last tug on the rope, she steps gingerly into the mouth of the cave and begins the steep descent.
Once she has reached the floor, the opening to the cave blazes above her like a jagged red sun, but around her all is cool and dim. The lantern light does not go far in darkness this profound, but by moving around the perimeter of the space she soon gains its measure.
At one end of the room she finds a tunnel, big enough to scuttle through at a crouch, and decides to see where it leads. As she goes farther, the passage angles steeply downward and grows narrower, until there is barely room for her to crawl and none to turn around. She has a sudden urge to stand up, though she knows she can’t. The stone floor cuts against her knees. She has no sense of how far she has come, and for all she knows the tunnel might end in a blank wall, and if it does, she will have to crawl the whole way backward, if she can even do such a thing. The panic makes her muscles twitch; she has to force herself to pause and breathe deeply to stay her own frantic motion. She imagines she is at home, in the little corner of the house where they store the potatoes, where the earthen walls squeeze close around her. At last she is calmer and moves forward again, and soon the tunnel widens out into another room. Sadie stands and stretches, claps her hands. To her right the sound echoes back, quick and sharp, but to the left it fades away into nothing. She sings out a line from her favorite hymn, “Glory, glory, praise His name,” and the stone walls sing back to her in a weird chorus. Laughing, she sings to the end of the song and holds her breath as the echoes fade. This is her reward for pushing herself forward when she might have turned back. She has never been anywhere so strange and apart from the world. It feels as though this place belongs to her alone, and before she has even begun the crawl back up through the tunnel, she knows she will return.