Jay wasn’t blindfolded, but he might as well have been. He had no idea where they were going, nor could he keep his bearings, but still he trusted his guide. She was taking him at last to the place he’d been restless to see since he’d met her by the side of the road months ago.
Or so he guessed. “I want to show you something,” she’d told him after work yesterday. “I’ll take you there tomorrow.”
“I have to work tomorrow. Late shift, so it’ll have to be early morning.”
Tuesdays were his normal day off, but Ed insisted he work the half week leading up to Christmas. It was the least Jay could agree to, after crawling back to the old man, asking to keep his job a bit longer after all.
“I can drive you if you’ll tell me where to pick you up.”
“No way. We’ll walk together. You won’t be late to Ed’s, I promise.”
She didn’t like to travel by car, Rumor explained. Not unless she had no other choice. You couldn’t see the land around you that way, couldn’t take it all in.
Jay had little trouble taking it all in now. He’d had little fear of getting lost when she had taken him to the little house on Coffin, had passed it and slipped through the field beyond, into the maritime forest. Now, though…
They were nearing the river. He could tell that much, but little more. If she were following any sort of track at all, he couldn’t make it out. All he saw were pines, the occasional palmetto, a scattering of saw palms clattering about their feet.
It was midmorning, half past nine maybe, and the day was mild, though on the verge of a real chill. Few clouds lined the sky. The air felt high, thin, piercing, in his lungs.
Rumor’s step was light and quick, her pace unhesitating. Though he could only see her back, Jay could feel the smile she must be wearing. It was visible, at least to his eyes, in every part of her body, in every motion she made. He still didn’t know much about her, but he was beginning to know more, perhaps, than he’d thought. Jay was glad he had stayed.
“Are we almost there?” he asked.
The forest thinned and they came to a meadow. “This was a crop field ‘fore the Revolution,” she told him. “No, not rice. That was closer to the river. There were other cash crops back then.”
She pointed out plants here and there that caught her eye, though how she knew them Jay could not guess.
“All that is broomsedge, you see that everywhere in fields an’ by the roads. There’s sicklepod, it has clumps of yellow flowers when it ain’t so cold. No, don’t mess with that — it’s dogfennel. Looks pretty, but crush it an’ there’ll be a hell of a smell.”
They passed what was apparently an overgrown track running through the field, judging by the wooden gate bearing a hand-lettered sign: Don’t ask. Jay didn’t.
“See those bushes beyond the fence, the olive ones with clouds of white? That’s saltbush. And them vines, mornin’ glories.”
It was beautiful. It would have seemed little more than scrub in his eyes, but through the names she spoke it took on meaning of its own, the rampant green and brown and its endless variation. Every edge of every living surface seemed sharper, more ragged — whether from the early morning cold or otherwise, he wasn’t sure.
Then he saw it. His first glimpse of a roof, far off above another stand of trees; oaks, it looked like. Smaller, younger ones. The house was not as large as he’d expected, and seemed to be in shambles. He strained to look.
“Oh, look! Here it is!”
Here what was? Jay could see the building, but it was to something nearer that Rumor’s own attention was drawn. He stepped closer. She held a small stalk of a plant in her hand, stretching it out. Traced her fingers over the leaves, the withered seed pods.
“Sea island indigo. Where the plantation got its name from.”
He studied the leafy stem in her hand, smiled. “This is what you wanted to show me?”
“Yes.” Her voice grew low. “It was grown by a teenage girl, next county south. She changed the fate of the colony, with this one little plant. Then it disappeared. It only lives in the margins of the land it used to grow in.”
Rumor peered at him. “See how the leaves don’ alternate, they mirror each other on the stem? How the colors come together, green an’ the hints of purple? How it’s fragile, but still grows in a hard place like this?”
“It’s like a poem,” he mused.
She beamed at him. “It is a poem.”
She could still surprise him, after all the months he’d spent in this town with her. The things she said to him, the way she said them.
He wished there was something he could do to surprise her. It was two days before Christmas, and he had no money now. No way to buy a gift — even though he knew she would never want anything he could buy. What else could he do? Something memorable, that’s what he needed. He could take her to the beach. She’d agreed to that.
They could take a break from the town, though he couldn’t well afford much of one now. Maybe after the Christmas crowds died away. He might could ask Ed about that. Surely things would slow after the holiday.
He reached to touch her fingers. Traced the inside of her palm. Rumor tilted her head, and he saw a sheen of sweat trace her brow. “You look hot,” Jay said.
“Thanks,” she smiled.
“No, I mean you look really warm.” He craned his neck, his eyes swept the field. “Do you smell that?”
His eyes locked on it. A black cloud rising, roiling. Smoke. From the road near where the little house was.
“Look,” he said, pointed back where they had come from. She looked.
Rumor paled. All life and pleasure, all calm and grace drained from her body. “Jay, we have to get there now.” She broke into a run.
“Where?” he called, starting after her.
“The house! Now!” She didn’t turn to wait for him. “Come on!”
Jay ran. What was happening? A faint sense of panic rose in his limbs, an acrid smell. It climbed up his spine, clenched over his shoulders. Panic and apprehension. He could see it in her, too: in her bearing, in her pace, the wild way her eyes had looked. Something was about to happen.
Soon he could hear it. Flames crackling, like a host of fiddlers scrambling up a dry bank.
Then halfway there, her body folded over. She collapsed onto the loamy sand, limbs in horrible angles. He crouched over her, heart bursting, turned her over. Blades of dried-out grass clung to her forehead, now nearly the same color. Something was deeply wrong. Shock was alive in her face, shock and then pain.
He felt her brow. Wrenched back his hand, stung by the heat of it. What was happening to her?
“The willow, Jay!” she sung. “The willow, it’s burning!” She was struggling to breathe. “You…have to save it.”
“What?” He shook his head. What was happening? What should he do? If only she’d let him drive them…he could carry her to the Buick, find a hospital… No, it was too late for that now. They were on their own.
Her breath was flagging now. “The house,” she gasped. “The tree.“
“Rumor, what…” Jay shook his head, helpless.
“Take me there. Please!” Her face was gaining color now, but too fast. She was almost red. “Oh, God, oh God! Please! Jay — we have to save it! Now!”
Her moan became a scream. He grasped her arm, tore his hand back again. How was she this hot? He stripped his jacket off, wrapped it around her. Lifted her. She was somehow heavier than he would have guessed, and lighter at the same time.
Jay ran as fast as he could. He smelled the smoke nearby now, though he couldn’t see the house yet. He glanced at the curtain of black hair draping from her head. Was she — no, it couldn’t — it was. Smoke rose now from her own body.
He could barely think. Could barely ask himself what it meant, only kept running. Could he carry her all the way to the motel lot, where his car was parked? He didn’t think so. Not before whatever was happening had finished itself out. He couldn’t think. He could only run, the thin fingers of pine needles raking at his cheeks.
Soon the trees parted and he saw the little house, wrapped in a hot blaze. It was like stepping into a curtain of heat, but the heat of Rumor’s body was almost as great. Jay stepped back, tried to find a path around the structure, back to the road.
“Jay,” she could only whisper now. “The willow. Please.”
What was she saying? He couldn’t think. He craned his head, spotted the willow by the road far from where he’d come out from the pines. It too was in flames now. Soon the longleafs would be as well, if the fire continued to spread.
What could he do? He couldn’t think. He knelt by the road, laid her broken form beside him. He was losing her. The thought split his mind in an instant. Hard, implacable. He was losing her.
She met his eyes, took his hand. It scalded him, but he tried not to pull away. “Jay, listen. Look at me, Jay. Listen. I —”
Her face was grey now, edged with scars of black. She seized, coughed. “Jay, I’m not — I’m —” The light was fading from her eyes.
“Jay, I — I love —”
Then she was gone. The smoke that rose from her face, her limbs, turned white.
“Rumor!” His voice was hoarse. He tried to yell, but it only came out in a whisper. “Rumor, stay with me! What is happening? What’s going on! Stay with me, it’ll be all right!”
He fell over her. Clutched her body to his own, ignored the burnt smell. He couldn’t think. Nothing made sense. How could this have happened? How could she be gone? He couldn’t think.
Jay did not move for nearly an hour, when the fire trucks finally arrived. He didn’t hear the sirens, the yelling voices, didn’t feel their grasping arms as they pulled him from her body. She was gone, and he knew it. He knew it and nothing else. Rumor was gone. She was gone.
* * *
“Jay!” The voice kept saying his name. “Jay! Wake up!”
He couldn’t wake up. Couldn’t think. He didn’t know anything but loss.
“Jay!” A hand waved in front of his face, dark fingers summoning him back to the world. “Jay, don’ make me slap you.”
He turned his head. There was Celia, standing above him. The fire was nearly out now. Across the road, some ways from the charred remains of the little house, there stood Mosquito looking on ahead. He remembered that. Remembered the man coming not long after Rumor had left him. No, not left him. After she had died.
His eyes stung. He couldn’t keep the tears from sliding down his nose, cutting the cold skin of his cheek.
“What happened, Jay?” Celia’s voice begged. “Where’s Rumor?”
He looked at her. How could she not know? It was an unthinkable thing that had taken place. How did she not feel it to her core?
“What happened?” Now there was panic in her throat. She glanced at where the uniformed men crowded over the charred body. “Jay, is she — No. No.”
They watched together. Neither spoke. Across the road the men were lifting her body, laying it on the stretcher. Did they think she was still alive? Was she? As they lifted, he could see her back. It alone was not blackened, was not scarred. The skin looked healthy there, untouched by whatever had killed her.
“Jay,” Celia whispered. He glanced at her. Her eyes were wide, filled with fear. “Jay. Look.”
She pointed at the blackened willow. It was completely destroyed, root to branch. Burnt, scarred, lifeless. All but one side, where the fire had not managed to reach.
He couldn’t think. Only shook his head. What did it mean? What was Rumor going to say, before… He choked again.
She was what? She was not what? It couldn’t mean what he thought it meant.
Celia too shook her head, as if reading his thought. Wiped her own tear-stained face. Took his hand. Her lips trembled as she spoke, reaching in her mind for the words of her mother, the tongue she had used when it was only them, their family and neighbors; the tongue she’d been ashamed to speak since leaving home.
“Ya gwine know de tree by de fruit e beah.”
Jay looked again at the stretcher in the ambulance. It was empty. Her body was gone.