Bring Me Your Yearning
– Fiction by Michele E. Reisinger –
Honorable Mention in the 2020 Dreamers Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest
Two days before the bicentennial and Madeline Harper’s tenth birthday, someone rowed an eighteen-foot Statue of Liberty constructed entirely of Venetian blinds and plywood across the rocky Susquehannock River and mounted it atop a crumbling stone railroad pier two hundred yards from shore. No one knows how it got there. Not the police, not the residents tucked astride the hill overlooking the waterway. Not even Crazy Man who usually walks his dog along the shoreline long past midnight.
“Mom says had to be more than one someone, you’d most likely kill yourself otherwise,” Maddie’s best and only friend George Peters says between mouthfuls of Quisp. He and Maddie wait impatiently in Maddie’s kitchen for their mothers to walk them down. His mother knows a lot and doesn’t mind reminding folks, though she and much of the town had slept like the dead through the statue’s resurrection. Some drivers do nearly kill themselves. Startled at the merge just outside of town by the unexpected sight of the gleaming white Lady rising from the river bed, they forget to brake and crash into cars slowing for a better view.
Their faint metal squeal cuts through the kitchen window as Mom finishes braiding Maddie’s pigtails too tight. Like braids are ropes and Maddie likely to fly off into the clouds like Aunt Nell or her dad. MIA, says the letter taped to the fridge. Mom says Maddie has his eyes, but Maddie isn’t convinced. His blurry boot camp picture hangs beside the letter, his features indistinct no matter how closely Maddie presses her nose, how thinly she stretches her lids. Mom keeps another picture framed in silver on her dresser. They pose on their wedding day months after graduating high school, his head thrown back in laughter, hers bent shyly to the ground. He wears a borrowed suit, she her best blue dress. There wasn’t time for more than a backyard service, Mom explained once, the draft notice forcing events neither of them anticipated. Nine months later, the sky alight with fireworks, Maddie was born. Bright blue eyes, all red and squalling. “My own Miss Independent,” Mom says each year when Maddie blows out her candles and puzzles over her meaning, over Mom’s mismatched face—smiling mouth, bleary eyes.
Breakfast over, George loops his binoculars around his neck and follows Maddie outside. When they finally arrive riverside, reporters with cameras and pens behind their ears mill among the growing crowd. Maddie and George sprint across the bank.
“Don’t get any closer, you two. It’s low tide now but you fall in, the current’ll get you.” Hatless, Mom blinks in the glare. Sometimes she’s like the butterflies hovering near the schoolyard milkweed—beautiful, soft and fragile. And sometimes she’s like the osprey that nest along the shore, alternately circling and swooping in search of prey. Sometimes Maddie wonders what Mom would be like if Dad weren’t lost, if she’d pick or become something else altogether. Maddie misses her dad, but her missing is fuzzy, like opening her eyes underwater or trying to focus on the smudgy edges of faraway stars. Nell, however? Mom’s former teacher had claimed Mom and Maddie as her own when Mom’s grief had sunk her into a black so deep no light could penetrate its core. Nell was more grandmother than the stiff-backed woman Mom took Maddie to visit one disastrous time, and Maddie misses her and the home they used to share with a keen, raw yearning that manifests in the shadowed corners of her new room and sets her feet to running.
She and George stand along the riverbank, toes squishing in the mud as they goggle at the statue. “Isn’t she something? She looks just like the real one. My aunt took me once.”
Their shoes lie in a heap near Mom, who chats with Mrs. Peters and the ladies from church. The women have a way of studying Maddie that says her father had sinned mighty fierce in first leaving, then neglecting to return home, a sin transferred to Maddie in his unrelenting absence, Mom doing the best she could, considering. Her tongue worries a loose tooth until its socket throbs. A few months before the end of fourth grade, a grim-faced man in shiny shoes had stood in Nell’s kitchen and said they had to leave. Now Nell had passed, the bank was taking over. Maddie kicked his shins and bit his flailing hand hard enough to draw blood. Hard enough to make Mom holler. Not hard enough to change the bank man’s mind. Mom found a new job and moved them across the river into the old Claster house. Her classmates were first curious, then cruel, until Maddie had tired of defending her missing father, her sudden arrival, and walloped Johnny Mack at recess. Fists clenched, unrepentant, she stood in front of the principal’s desk and refused the explanation both he and Mom demanded, but George, who lived next door and saw everything while he and the other boys played kickball, insisted Johnny said a bad word and pushed her first. Mom cried, the principal reconsidered, and Maddie and George, formerly aloof, became inseparable.
A group of older boys, arms outstretched, pick their way along an outcropping of rock meandering like a bridge from the shore to a few yards beyond the statue’s base. “I betcha I could do that,” Maddie says, mimicking their gestures. “Then I could really see what she looks like. Betcha she’s perfect.”
George brushes off a lens, then lifts his binoculars. “Nah, you’d fall in and drown. And you’re wrong, she ain’t perfect. Look. Her torch don’t shine. The real one, she’s got a light in her, don’t she?”
Maddie peeks over her shoulder at Mom before inching closer to the water. “I still can’t see. Gimme those, you’re hogging.” Tugging the binoculars from his grasp, she twists them into focus. George shakes his head, sighing. The Lady resembles an accordion or a storybook bumblebee’s giant hive, ribs and arms arranged around a metal skeleton and held aloft on a wooden cross base. Only her face is solid. “Hey, you’re right. Wonder why they went and forgot the light? How you s’posed to know where to go?”
“I d’know. Guess they forgot.” George pulls a skipping rock from the muck and throws. It splashes twice before sinking.
“You’re not doing it right. Here, I’ll show you.” She digs another, draws back her wrist and flicks the stone just hard enough to skip it seven times. One of the boys on the outcropping salutes, and Maddie grins. She walks along the shore in their direction. “Told you. C’mon, let’s get closer. I want to see.”
A low, gravelly bark startles them to a halt. “Crazy Man,” George says, as a man and his dog scatter the crowd ahead. He lives in a cabin deep within the mountain woods and rarely ventures into town, his dog a beast that gnaws on nosy children. Least that what Johnny says. Johnny had called Maddie’s dad crazy, too, and names whose meanings she couldn’t ever ask Mom. Up close, however, she struggles to reconcile the man they’re supposed to fear with the man who haunts the riverside. Once, she’d seen his wanderings when– sleepless, restless, her new old house creaking like bones in the damp and chill of night–she’d sneaked out through the window and made her way to the river across which home and Aunt Nell called. A man and his dog had paced the shoreline, the man stopping every so often to pry a stone from the silt and skip it into the waves in longer and longer arcs.
Then as now, Crazy Man wears an olive coat and heavy black boots, tightly laced. Young, but with old, old eyes, his rough beard covers one end of a scar that scores the ridge of his cheek. Hernandez, Maddie reads along one pocket. He leans heavily on a cane, his German shepherd thumping its tail beside him, and spits into the dirt. “What’re you gawping at, kid?”
Late morning as they breach the hill heading home, a blue-suited man exits a shiny black car idling in the drive. Mom stills. “Go on and play, you two. Mrs. Peters will be along soon.”
Maddie swallows her protest. Mom looks grey, and one hand tugs her blouse hem straight. George, oblivious, lowers cross-legged to the grass and polishes his binoculars with a corner of his shirt. “So who you think did it?”
“Did what?” Maddie strains to hear what the man tells Mom, but the cicadas’ frantic buzz and the bum-bump of her heart dull their voices to an indistinct murmur. He looks like the man at Nell’s house but bendy, rocking forwards and back on his heels like the Towers in New York she visited with Nell last year. Stepping out of the elevator, Maddie had felt the floor shift with the wind’s insistent rhythm and pressed her clammy hands against a wall, refusing to step toward the bubbled observation deck until Nell coaxed her fingers free. This stranger man, fingers splayed on Mom’s back as they ascend the porch, makes Maddie sick and dizzy, too. She sits, then thrusts her fingers into the matted grass at her feet.
“You okay? You look kinda funny.” George’s brow scrunches. “I said, who you think built the statue? I bet it was Crazy Man. Mom says he ain’t got but the one real leg, but he’s strong he is. Not strong enough to do it himself, though. Bet they dragged it to the boat and rowed it across. Ain’t no other way I can figure.”
“Nah. Maybe. Why they call him that anyway?” After chastising George for being nosy, Crazy Man had hobbled with his dog to the water’s edge while Mrs. Peters announced the police said someone reported a missing boat and boot prints alongside the dock. Someone else heard splashing, followed by the burp and fizz of pop tabs, and raucous, young laughter. The man with the missing boat? His neighbor’s neighbor saw several hunched shadows near the launch, one of which limped. Crazy Man’s mouth had twitched as he studied the Lady.
“Cause he is, I guess. Least that’s what my mom says. She says something about the jungle turned his brain to mush. He wasn’t never the same after it. That’s why you ain’t hardly ever see him. Mom says he don’t like people much. Makes him jumpy.”
Maddie frowns. Not crazy, Mom had explained as they walked home from the Lady. Broken. Like his heart was a puzzle and he’d returned stateside missing pieces. When Maddie had sneaked out, she’d watched him skipping stones as the sky turned gray, then pink and gold. She finally slept, then woke with leaves in her hair and a long smudge of soil on her cheek. No dog, no man, but at her feet lay a pile of smooth stones as if conjured. She’d cocked her wrist like his and hurled rocks until guilt and a gurgling stomach urged her home. Mom grounded her for a week. “That’s stupid,” she says to George. “He’s not crazy. He’s got a name.”
“Everybody’s got a name. We should fix it, don’t you think? Make her torch shine?”
Maddie tugs a loose clutch of grass, tossing it toward the stone drive. Shortly after their trip to New York, Aunt Nell fell sick and never got better. Maddie knows all about missing pieces, about homes as foreign and faraway as jungles. Standing, she climbs the porch and peers through the door’s honeycomb screen to the kitchen. A chair scrapes the linoleum, metal plinks against the ceramic edge of a coffee cup. Mom’s shoulders, hunched toward the table, contradict the rigid angle of her spine. The man leans against the counter and raises a mug to his lips. Maddie stomps down the steps. “Fix it? Now who’s crazy?”
Long past dark, Maddie listens to the house breathe and her mother’s soft, open-mouth snores. She pushes against her wiggly tooth until it pops free, then tucks it under her pillow and makes a wish. After the man had left and Mrs. Peters collected George, Maddie helped her mom ice her birthday cake. Without candles, its chocolate face looks like the surface of the moon outside her window, all swirls and dips and shadows. Maddie pictures herself flying to the moon, bouncing between stars and peering into the black where souls float.
Is that where Nell and Dad are, Maddie asked, but Mom just sighed and tried drawing Maddie to her lap. Then she explained the man was a lawyer she’d hired after Aunt Nell’s passing. He told Mom that Nell meant her house for them, but meaning and doing weren’t the same, at least according to the bank. This is our home now, Mom said. No more fighting and no more running.
Maddie’s throat squeezes. She’d nodded, then knotted her fingers behind her back. This isn’t the same as running, she tells the stars. It’s…finding. Sliding out of bed fully clothed, she retrieves her sneakers and a bulging, canvas rucksack from the closet, slinging the latter about her shoulders. She wedges the window open and shimmies along the porch roof and down the oak whose branches weave a ladder to the back yard. Heat lightning sparks in the distance. The wind stills, heavy and hot, then punctured in intermittent bursts by thin fingers of cold that announce the approaching storm. Digging a toehold in the fence, she swings into George’s yard and whistles at his window.
A few minutes later George appears, hair in spikes and mouth cracked in a yawn, binoculars once more around his neck. “What the heck you doing here? Don’t you know it’s the middle of the darn night?” Yawning again, he knuckles his eyes, then bends to lace his shoes.
“Course I do. We can’t very well do it in the daytime when everyone’s watching, now can we?” She heads around the corner to the road. “You coming?”
“Do what? What are you talking about, Maddie? Wait up!”
“Hush! You want to wake the whole world?” She remains silent until they reach the edge of the block and cross to the baseball fields, down the hill from which the river flows. “I been thinking about what you said. How’s anyone going to know where to go if the Lady’s missing her torch?”
“Yeah, so? What’s that got to do with anything?”
Maddie rattles her bag. “Don’t you remember what you said?”
“At the river? We’re going to fix the Lady’s torch so it shines.” She drops the bag and rifles inside. “I think I got everything.”
George nudges her aside. “Lemme see. Flashlight… sparklers… tin foil. Hey, where’d you get the lantern? You got batteries?”
“Yup. Matches, too.” Worry skitters like spiders in her stomach. She’d slipped them from the kitchen drawer while Mom washed up the icing, the rest while she thought Maddie sleeping.
“You know we’re gonna get in trouble or killed, I bet. How come you changed your mind?”
“I told you I been thinking.” About Nell and the Lady and Crazy Man’s jumbled heart. About how things can be in two places at once, yet neither whole nor home in either. “How come they put it out there all sneaky like? Like it’s a secret?”
“I d’know. Maybe–”
“And how come she’s broken? She doesn’t have a body either, not really. Maybe whoever made her wants us to fix her. Not just us. Us and everybody else.”
George’s eyes widen. “Yeah. And maybe if her light’s shining…”
“We can make her perfect like the real one.”
They hurry sideways down the hill, its minor hazards obscured by thickening clouds that extinguish the moon.
“Aw, man,” says George, slowing as they approach. The river looks much different at night, breathing and pulsing like a living thing and grabbing with greedy fingers at the scrub along the shore as the tide rises. “Ain’t no way we can get out there now, half the rocks ain’t even showing the water’s so high.”
Maddie huffs through her nose. Her throat hurts worse and the spiders are like the waves slapping the Lady’s base. She fists the bag’s straps tighter. “You chicken? I told you, all I have to do is walk across those rocks there. I can jump that last little bit and climb on up. Easy as pie. I’ll be careful. Just keep a lookout.”
George scans the shoreline. “I d’know. Mom said the police’re watching. Maybe they’ll think it’s us.”
“Maybe. And maybe they’ll help. Ever think of that?” She walks to the river’s edge, listening for sirens as George follows. Water sloshes against her ankles, filling her sneakers with heavy, slimy muck. She toes them off and kicks them behind George. Following the shoreline to the rock bridge, she pictures the statue illuminated by fireworks, Mom and the townsfolk oohing and ahhing at the Lady’s glistening lamp. Nell had loved fireworks. Said Maddie shouldn’t be scared, they were like flowers bursting into bloom, just louder because they’re celebrating. Not just you, sweetie. All of us.
A loose stone rolls her ankle. She winces, simultaneously startled by a rumble of thunder and a flicker of movement through the trees. “Hey,” she calls. “Who’s there?”
“You okay?” George, footsteps splashing, sounds thin and faraway.
“Thought I saw something is all.” Maddie strains for a glimpse of the shiny, moving thing, but seeing nothing, turns her attention to the river. Overlapping flashes illuminate the Lady until she glows. With Mom, the path between the statue and the shore had appeared smooth and solid, its edges snug and interlocking as the boys attempted their crossing. Now, the bridge isn’t a bridge at all but a gaping row of broken, jagged teeth through which the water hisses. At least a foot of water covers them, the rock step closest to the Lady slick with mud and bits of river algae that mar its dimpled face and slither shoreward. Dizzy again, Maddie loosens her grip on the bag and lets it fall. She and Nell never got to see the real Lady. The swaying Towers, booming fireworks and jostling crowds made Maddie cry and Nell promise next year as they waited for the train back home. Except next year is today and Nell is gone and the secondhand Lady’s Venetian bones rattle in the storm’s rising wind.
Maddie holds her breath and jumps.
Later, she will explain she lost her balance. Thunder cracked and someone yelled and Maddie, mid-step, slipped and fell headfirst into the water, choking on muck and flailing against its sharp and spongy bottom.
Later, George will say he heard the yelling and next thing he knew Crazy Man was dragging Maddie from the water and pounding her back while Beast howled and growled until Crazy Man whistled, Sit. I thought we were dead for sure, he’ll say, and Maddie will tell him that’s not what happened. Sergeant would’ve never let her drown.
Because in the split second between the jump and the yell and right before the thunder, shadows coalesced into a canoe near where she’d watched him skipping stones, and she remembered something else Nell had said because Mom had said something like it too. That running is good when you’re running to something, like all those yearning souls heading toward the Lady. But running away and blaming? You’ll never find your way home.
“That’s why you did it,” Maddie says between coughs. She elbows upright, spitting a mouthful of silt. “You’re running like me.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You trying to get yourself killed?” He crouches awkwardly, mouth drawn, cane abandoned between the woods and the river. Beast zig-zags along the shore emitting sharp barks.
George, binoculars tangled from running, launches himself at the man’s back. “Leave her alone or I’ll–”
“You’ll what, kid? Beast, stay.” The dog drops to his haunches, tail thumping, as the man reaches behind him and pries George loose. He Vs their arms upward. “Your friend always this crazy?”
“Hey, lemme go!”
“You finished jumping on me?”
Maddie laughs. “Nah, he’s not so bad, sir. Honest. Sgt. Hernandez, this is George. I’m Maddie. Told you he’s got a name.”
He releases George and extends a hand to Maddie first, then George who eyes it warily before shaking. “You going to tell me what you’re doing out here?”
She confesses everything then, her words a river spilling its banks, the Lady a bridge spanning the flood. “You ever been to the real one? My aunt said you can see for miles inside her. Everything looks little, even those skyscrapers. Aunt Nell said things always look different when you stand different. Even scary things.”
“Did she now? She sounds like quite a lady.” His voice rasps like sandpaper on metal. “Speaking of standing…” He thrusts his chin toward the trees. “George, right? I dropped my cane. You mind?”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no sir. I’ll get it.”
George scurries to retrieve his cane while Maddie rummages through her discarded sack.
“You’re lucky I was here, kid.”
“Uh uh. You’re lucky I was.” She holds out her lantern.
“What’s that for?”
She gestures toward the statue. “You forgot her light.”
“Me? What makes you think I had anything to do with–?”
“Cause she’s us, isn’t she?”
“Us? What’re you talking about, kid?”
“The Lady. She’s got holes in her, but she’s not moving.”
“I told you. She’s us.”
He clears his throat. Beast whines, ears twitching. “Yeah well some things can’t be fixed, kid. Bout time you learned that.”
Maddie shrugs and sets the lantern at his feet. “Maybe. Mom says try anyway.”
George returns holding the cane and Maddie’s sneakers, just as the clouds burst in a humid shower. “We should prob’ly get back,” he says. “Before our moms see we’re missing.”
He heads for the road, leaving Maddie to follow. She shoves her sneakers into the bag, slinging it once more over her shoulders. It feels both heavier and lighter without the lantern, but her throat doesn’t hurt and the dizzy is gone.
The sergeant rolls onto all fours and, using his cane for balance, rises to a stand. Lightning outlines him and the Lady behind as if they are one. “You called me sergeant. How’d you know?”
She points to the patch centered on his chest. “You look like my dad.”
He knocks his heels together and salutes. “Go on now.”
Maddie grins, then sprints toward George waiting at the bottom of the hill. She glances toward the river, but Sgt. Hernandez and Beast have vanished along with her lantern, the crunch of boots, the snap of yielding tree limbs proof she hadn’t conjured them with wishing. She wonders where they live, whether George’ll help her find them again. She pictures him and George in her kitchen, Mom slicing birthday cake in four thick slabs, while on the porch Beast laps water from a silver bowl. And when Mom’s not looking, she’ll whisper how perfect the Lady looks with her torch. Our secret, she’ll say, and Sergeant’s mouth will twitch.
Meanwhile, she and George trudge home in silence. The storm, its fury ended, retreats behind the mountains. At Maddie’s house, the kitchen light illuminates her mother pacing the floor, phone cord stretched taut then twisted about her middle.
“Uh oh,” George says. His own house slumbers black and still. “I can come in with you if you want. She might not be so mad.”
She shakes her head. “Thanks. But I got to fix it myself, I guess.” She heads toward the porch, then turns back. “George? I’m sorry I hogged your binoculars.”
He grins. “S’okay. See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”
Maddie climbs the steps to where her mother waits.
About the Author – Michele Reisinger
Michele Reisinger studied English and Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University and received an MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware. She lives near Philadelphia with her family and teaches senior and AP English at a New Jersey high school. Her short fiction has appeared online at Prometheus Dreaming, 34th Parallel, and is forthcoming in The Mighty Line. “Ask and Ye Shall Receive” was a merit winner for Passion and featured in TulipTree Publishing’s 2019 anthology Stories That Need to be Told.
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**This story by Michele Reisinger received an honorable mention in the 2020 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.
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