Jay wasn’t blindfolded, but he might as well have been. He could not keep his bearings; she was taking him deeper into Indicum than he had ever been, to the place he had been restless to see since he had first met Rumor on the roadside by the ruined house.
Or so he guessed.
“I want to show you something,” she had told him yesterday after work. “Come with me. Tomorrow morning.”
“All right.” He’d tilted his head to balance his lopsided smile.
He had walked from the Loblolly, rather than driving, even though he could now. It had seemed fitting. He’d grown used to walking when he was with her; she liked the ground beneath her feet, even when she had the choice. Walking up Coffin Road, just before seven today, he’d thought of his first wrong turn onto this street. Of the strange coincidence that had led him here, to her. It had seemed years ago…
Now he followed her. Past the ruined house and the crepe myrtle, through the field beyond and into the maritime forest. They were nearing the river. He could tell that much, but little more. If she were following a track, it wasn’t one Jay could make out.
All he saw were pines. The occasional palmetto, a scattering of saw palms that clattered as their feet brushed past. Few clouds lined the sky. The air felt thin and piercing in his lungs.
“We getting close?” he asked.
He could only see her back, but he could feel the smile she must be wearing. It was clear to his eyes, at least: implicit in her light and quick stride. He still knew little about her, but he was beginning to know more, maybe, than he had thought. Jay felt glad that he had stayed.
“Nearly,” she answered.
The forest thinned and opened to a meadow. “This was a crop field before the Revolution,” she pointed.
“Rice field, right?”
She laughed. “No, not rice. That was near the river. There were other cash crops that long ago — don’t worry, you’ll see!”
She pointed out plants that caught her eye, as they walked, though how she knew them Jay couldn’t guess. They were plain things, the kind he would have overlooked, but she spoke in glowing tones.
“All that is broomsedge, you see it everywhere by the roads and in the fallow fields. There’s sicklepod, it has clumps of yellow flowers when it’s warmer. Too cold now. No, don’t mess with that one — that’s dogfennel. Looks pretty, but stinks to hell if you crush it.”
They passed an overgrown wire fence with a sign leaned against it, spray paint on particleboard, advising: Don’t ask. Jay didn’t.
“See the bushes past there, other side of the wire? That’s saltbush. And down further along, those vines — morning glories.”
It was beautiful. In his own eyes and words, it was mere scrub. But the names, the voice that spoke them, made it glow almost with another light. The land seemed sharper, more ragged. An endless rampant green and brown.
It was more than the sum of its parts. No, it wasn’t even that — it wasn’t a sum, all lumped together. Everything was distinctly itself and had its own glory.
Then he saw it. The first glimpse of a roof, far off above another stand of smaller, younger oaks. It was not as large a house as he’d expected, from what he could guess of its shape and size from here. It seemed to be in shambles, the green tin striped with rust.
“Jay! There it is!”
He turned to meet her gaze, but she was looking away from him, away from the house, even. He stepped closer. She knelt with a small stalk in her hand, tracing her fingers over the leaves and withered seed pods.
“Sea island indigo — the place’s namesake.”
He smiled. “This is what you wanted to show me?”
“A teenage girl grew it first, the next county south from here, then everyone did. She changed the colony’s fate with one little plant. After a while, though, it just disappeared. Now it’s wild, a weed in the margins where it used to flourish.”
Her voice was quiet and low.
“See how the colors come together, the green and the hints of purple? How fragile it is, but still can grow in a hard place?”
“It’s like a poem,” Jay 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.
Jay wanted to surprise her, too. It was two days before Christmas and he had no money now, no way to buy a gift, even if she wanted one. Maybe, after the holidays when the crowds died away, Ed would give him time off, though he couldn’t well afford much of it just now. He would drive her to the beach, let her walk barefoot in the sand, find shells and shark teeth together. Have a beer or two by the peer. She had wanted to see the ocean; he remembered that.
He brushed her fingers with his own and traced the inside of her palm. Rumor’s head tilted toward him, brow glistening.
“You look hot,” Jay frowned.
She smiled. “Thanks.”
“No, I mean you look really warm.” His neck straightened and his eyes swept the field. “Do you smell that?”
His eyes locked onto it. A black cloud rose and roiled — smoke. Back toward the road, fairly near where he thought the ruined house must be.
“Look,” he said, pointing. She looked.
“Jay, we have to go. Now.”
“Where?” he called, hurrying to catch up as she broke into a run. All calm and grace had left her, and she seemed fragile, sick. “Hey, slow down!” he called.
“The house! Come on!”
A strange dread fused through his veins, climbed up his spine, clenched his shoulders. What was happening? The moment in the field, their moment — it had collapsed so quickly, and now he struggled to process it. Soon he could hear the fire, like a host of fiddler crabs scrambling up a dry bank. Something was wrong. She folded over, halfway there, limbs sprawled in horrible angles in the sand.
He crouched over her, heart busting through his chest, and turned her over. Dried grass clung to her forehead, now nearly the same color. Something was deeply wrong. Shock was alive in her face, and then pain.
He felt her brow. Wrenched back his hand, stung by the heat of it.
“The crepe myrtle, Jay,” she coughed. “It’s burning. You have to…you have to save it.”
“What?” He shook his head. Cursed his decision to walk rather than drive this morning. She needed a hospital.
He reached for his phone. Her breath was flagging now.
“The house,” she gasped. “The tree.”
Her moan became a scream. He clasped her by the arm then tore his hand back again — burned. How could she be that hot? He stripped his jacked off and wrapped it around her, lifted her. She was heavier, somehow, than he would have guessed — denser — and yet lighter at the same time.
“Oh God! Please! Jay, hurry, you have to — have to — Jay, hurry!”
Her face was gaining color now, but too fast. She was nearly red as clay. He ran and didn’t stop, breathless as he was, ran even when he thought he saw smoke curl up from a strand of her hair as it billowed in the wind. She was burning.
He could barely think. Couldn’t wonder what it meant, couldn’t spare a stray thought for that. Pine needles raked softly at his cheeks, and somehow the trees parted and revealed the ruined house, blazing in a curtain of heat. He stopped short, staggered back from its fury. But the heat of Rumor’s body was almost as great.
He wouldn’t make it. He knew that somehow, standing there, seeing the fiery ruins. He wouldn’t be able to get her anywhere before what was happening played itself out.
“Jay,” she could only whisper now. “The myrtle. Please.”
He heard the words but couldn’t process them. Couldn’t think. He lifted his head and saw the crepe myrtle standing by the road, half wreathed in flames. Soon the longleafs around it would burn, too, if the fire continued to spread, and then the marsh itself would burn.
He couldn’t think. There was no more strength to run. He knelt by the road, laid her broken form beside him. He was losing her The thought split his mind in twain. He was losing her.
She met his eyes. Took his hand. It scalded him, but he didn’t pull away. Couldn’t pull away, not from her. “Jay,” she sputtered. “Jay, listen. Look at me. Jay, listen, I—”
She seized, coughed. Her face was grey and edged with scars of black. “Jay, I’m not — I’m — Jay—”
The light was fading from her eyes.
“Jay, I love, I—”
She was gone. The smoke from her body turned white.
Jay did not move for near a full hour, not till the fire trucks arrived. He didn’t hear the sirens. The yelling voices. Didn’t feel their grasping arms as they pulled him away from her.
She was gone. And he knew it. He knew it and knew nothing else. Rumor was gone.
* * *
The voice kept saying his name.
“Jay! Jay! Wake up!”
He couldn’t wake up. Wouldn’t.
“Jay! Jay, wake up! Jay!”
A hand waved in front of his face, dark fingers summoning him back into the world. “Jay, don’t make me slap you.”
He turned. There was Celia, standing above him. The fire was nearly out now. Across the road, some ways from the charred remains of the ruined house, there stood Mosquito looking on ahead. He remembered that. Long afterward, he remembered the old man coming and standing still and silent, watching.
Jay’s eyes stung. He couldn’t keep the tears from sliding down his nose and cutting the cold skin of his cheek.
“What happened?” Celia’s voice begged. “Where is she? Where’s Rumor?”
He only looked at her. How could she not know? It was unthinkable, the thing that had happened. How could she not feel it down to her core?
“What happened?” Now there was panic in her throat. She glanced at where the uniformed men knelt over the charred body.
“Jay, is she —? No. No.”
They watched together. Neither spoke. Across the road the men were lifting her body and laying it out on a stretcher. Did the think she was still alive? As they lifted, Jay could see her back. It alone was not blackened, not scarred. The skin looked healthy there, untouched by whatever had killed her.
“Jay,” Celia half whispered. Her eyes were wide, filled with fear. “Jay. Look.”
She pointed at the blackened crepe myrtle. It was 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. Choked again.
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 and she spoke, reaching into memory for the words of her mother, the tongue she had used as a child when it was only them, family and neighbors, the tongue she’d been ashamed to speak since leaving her home.
“Ya gwine know de tree by de fruit e da beah.”
Jay looked again at the stretcher in the ambulance. It was empty. Her body was gone.