Sweet Knife by Dana Brewer Harris
In “Sweet Knife,” Dana Brewer Harris relies upon gorgeous language to ask an ugly question: What does it mean to be beautiful, and who can love those who aren’t? Calla, who has always understood she is a “winter-apple sort of girl, one who’d bloom late but keep well,” must choose between two men. Harris’s characters move through the natural world spattered in blood and dirt as they attempt to create space for their desires and make peace with whatever satisfaction they can scrape from their beds of soil. Diction and rhythm play an integral part in creating the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality: Harris deliberately chooses words that leave readers with “feelings that might seem discordant with what’s happening on the page…like wrapping broken glass in the petals of a flower.” Harris doesn’t offer the reader easy answers, but instead she asks us to imagine an ending. Will Calla return to Ford, or will she stay on Otter’s farm? —CRAFT
When Ford made love to Calla, she felt something in him fight. It wasn’t against her ugliness. That matter was settled business, though Calla, in her youth, had held onto the idea that she was a winter-apple sort of girl, one who’d bloom late but keep well, eventually attracting a husband of the highest quality. But she was poorly built, with skin that only ever bloomed like chocolate—the grayness of it flat and dry and dispiriting, so she’d attracted only Ford: insensitive and fearful, generally aggressive, little more than a rogue horse. It was never clear which one of them was more disappointed.
“Please don’t touch me when you come to bed,” he said over breakfast. The night before, he’d been awakened by her fingers kneading his stomach. “I need to sleep.”
“I know,” she replied, “but I’d fixed myself up.”
“Got work to do in the fallow field,” he said, and went outside.
For her part, Calla’s yearning for someone better had never yielded, nor had her hope of a pretty bloom. Sometimes, like this morning, the desire to be beautiful became such an unnatural noise that Calla could think of nothing else; the ache had become so palpable, she could feel it just behind her teeth. Stirring herself from her misery, she remembered an old man named Otter who lived at the edge of town. He’d known her father, and had once placed his hand on the small of her back and left his longing there.
Early Monday morning, with a few stars still shining, Calla walked down Bell Street to Otter’s house—her bare legs speckled with dirt, silk slip damp against her thighs—and tapped on his door.
“Looking for somebody?” Otter stood rigid as a bow rake. He had the long nails of a widower.
“You used to come to Lou’s and play cards. I’d bring out the food and drinks. I’m Lou’s oldest girl, Calla.”
Otter looked at her for a long while. “You the one I held close to me for good luck?” His gaze stayed wary.
Calla saw his eyes finally slip into softness, then slip again until they held something she herself could not see, and then he brushed the hair from her eyes.
“I brought you fried catfish and whiskey,” she said.
Otter stepped aside and let her in.
Soon, she lay tucked beneath him, her hips grinding against his, his tongue the taste of Crown Royal and salt. He shifted and pressed his lips against the veins in her neck. She could see out the window to the tilted garden shed filled with patient spiders, and beyond it to the bloodstained block where he slaughtered his chickens.
Her eyes searched until she found a bright stretch of sky, an expansive, irrepressible blush, the color of a dying fire. She had no thought of Ford squirming like a night crawler in their bed. No thought of his muddy boots on the porch. She would visit Otter, let him ease into her, and sometimes bring him food. He, in turn, would believe she was beautiful.
Calla stood off to the side holding the hatchet as Otter pulled the chicken’s head through a hole in the feed bag. It kept the bird still. A true chop to the neck, meat unbruised by flopping, a quick bleed until the reflexes stopped. Calla dunked the carcasses into scalding water, making sure to push the horned feet deep into the pot for easy skinning, and later, brewing broth.
They worked together through the seasons: Otter’s face unshaven in winter, Calla’s legs flecked with blood and dirt in the spring. He pulled the frizzle feathers from her hair, but then put them back just behind her ears. For her birthday, they drove to Vermilion where the people were the color of raw scallops year-round, and Otter gifted her an apron.
“You won’t have so much blood on your legs,” he’d said.
“Sure won’t,” she replied.
Beyond the stench of the chopping block, Otter cleared a small patch for Calla where she planted oak leaf and sweet peas. He watched her gray fingers push the dibber into the soil. Fingers that planted, plucked, and stroked his back. He cleared a large patch for himself and seeded it when she wasn’t there.
Months of returning home with an errant cut on her hand, or a forgotten bag of guts in her pocket, had sparked only fragments of curiosity in Ford. He felt her absence no more than he felt his own lust. But an unexpected gust of scrutiny had kept Calla away from Otter’s place most of the summer. One morning, while Ford slept, she left quietly for Bell Street. She was sure her peas had rotted on the vine.
She called out from the porch before opening the door. “I’m back, Otter.”
Inside, stillness all around. Otter was in bed, hands clenched as if he’d been praying, but Calla smelled him in the raw, clotted stink of the room. She inhaled until a heavy suck of air hung in her throat, then touched his hands and left her longing there. She took a Blue Boy from the vase beside the bed and tucked it behind her ear as she walked through the house. Wilted lettuce heads and withering pea pods covered the kitchen table.
Out back, she saw her little plot neat and crisp, but Otter’s field was nurtured and proud. The earth had held no hostility for any seed he’d planted. Bigheaded dahlias, and happy Shasta daisies. Asters, and bright yellow goldenrod. All waving as if trying to get her attention. They were all there, the late bloomers, spectacular and sun-drenched, well-tended and beautiful.
DANA BREWER HARRIS is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her writing has been published in Atticus Review and DarkWinter Literary Magazine. Her short story “Sweep” was recently nominated for Best Small Fictions and featured in Stanford’s The Writer’s Spotlight. She is a docent-in-training at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Find her on Twitter @DBrewerHarris.
Featured image by Jonathan Kemper, courtesy of Unsplash.