“The Bridesmaid,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell

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“The Bridesmaid,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of MQR.

Clearly this groom is more accustomed to lugging hay bales and veal calves, but with those big hands he manages to lift my sister’s veil and smooth it back prettily over her hair, revealing her face and shoulders. I feel vaguely shameful about this ritual undressing, though I myself have stripped naked in all sorts of places with men whom I’ve no intention of marrying. Now as the groom bends toward my sister’s face, the bought flowers vibrate in the vases, and my own hands shake. My sister, who has a tiny waist and who is an honest-to-goodness virgin, absorbs the moment before the kiss and pulls all the energy from the room, leaving the rest of us feeling dull.

The softness of their kiss gives me the seasick feeling that I’m with my sister and the groom on the honeymoon bed. After all, I shared a room with her until I left for college. I look away, to the pastor who looms over this procedure with the gravity of a hangman, then up to the electric chandelier which gleams motionless. No longer do I fear that my dress will come unzipped or that the brass fixture will fall and crack open my sister’s skull; instead I fear that this kiss will not end, that time will freeze and abandon me in this orbit. My sister’s eyes are closed, her lashes spread out over her cheeks. Even after they’ve opened again, her eyes remain in the sleep of that kiss as though covered with a milky effluent, something the fairies would make in their mouths and spit onto those they favor.

In the upholstered front-row pew, my parents’ eyes seem covered with the milky substance as well. My mother dabs her face with a Kleenex; in the garden she wipes the sweat off her forehead with the bottom of her t-shirt. My father, who didn’t even wear a suit to my aunt’s funeral last year, is dressed like Fred Astaire and has got his legs crossed. The change in my parents frightens me more than walking on carpeting in three-inch heels, and I’m wishing that I had carried my own weedy bouquet of wild phlox or had neglected to shave my legs or had worn a necklace of stones, done anything that would make me feel more like myself. I’m letting my sister down by being sucked into her fairy tale. Someone should always remain vigilant.

My job now is to follow the bride and the groom down the aisle. My sister’s gown is something out of a nineteen-forties movie, sleeveless and crusted with embroidery, front and back — I wouldn’t let her tell me what she paid for it. Her gloves extend past her elbows, to tiny biceps unbefitting a farm girl. Though we are not a touchy family, my father reaches out from the pew and squeezes my free hand with his callused palm. He taught me to shoot, my father, by pressing his index finger over my own to squeeze the trigger the first time. As I shuffle behind the bride and groom, I let my father’s hand drop and look away so he doesn’t see that I’ve started to cry.

When my father taught me to shoot, I was ten. First I shot at a target placed against a side of the hill in the pasture and then at raccoons who tried to get into the chicken house. My sister refused even to touch the shotgun; she did not want to be Annie Oakley or Laura on the prairie. She wanted to be Cinderella or Snow White, passive and pure at heart. Like the princess who couldn’t bear the pea beneath the mattress, when my sister started her period she spent three days in bed without speaking — she had seen the health movies in school, but she had honestly not believed that her own body would betray her in this way. My father always worried about my sister not learning to shoot; he told my mom that a girl like her especially needed to be able to defend herself.

From now on she has her husband to defend her, I suppose. And who knows? Maybe the two of them will have one of those lives of enduring bliss you hear about on the radio. I remain six feet behind my sister so I don’t step on her train, and I take the hand of the flower girl, my cousin’s daughter, who has emptied the basket of rose petals and is now fidgeting at having to walk so slowly. Suddenly, in the first unchoreographed move of this ceremony, just before passing through the double doors beneath the Exit sign, my sister turns and looks back at the altar. Had I anticipated that she would then look at me, I would have straightened out my face and smiled, but she catches my eyes full of tears and my mouth set grimly in the memory of shooting my first raccoon dead outside the chicken house, of the shot picking its body up off the ground and slamming it against the barn wall.

My sister wears all kinds of waterproof mascara and eye shadow, so her eyes appear especially white and alert; but the fairy milk clears the instant her gaze meets mine, leaving the naked look of a girl in the water who can’t swim. She stares at me for one second, two seconds. Why doesn’t the groom notice my sister’s distress? He should turn her around and kiss her passionately, crushing those flowers in his pocket if necessary. Kiss her, I want to yell. Instead, I collect myself into a half-smile which does not fool her. There’s nothing I can do except reach down and straighten her embroidered train which I have almost just stepped on. The flower girl bends down and helps, grateful for something to do. Through the back of my head I feel my parents watching.

When I was thirteen, my sister was nine. That was one of the winters both my father and my mother worked at the Halko plant making automotive armrests and glove boxes on third shift, leaving the house at ten-thirty at night. Though the area is starting to get built up, our house then was a half mile from the next neighbor; the police might take half an hour to get to us, so my father told me to sleep with the shotgun against the wall beside my bed. He placed it there before he left each night. “If you hear anyone outside, you get that gun,” he had instructed me. “If anyone comes into this house without your permission, you blow ’em away, honey.”

My sister always slept soundly — Sleeping Beauty, my mother called her because she was lost to our world for ten or twelve hours a night. I have never needed that much sleep, but I could read without disturbing her or reorganize the shells and polished stones on the top of my dresser by shape or color or size. After my parents went to work, I sometimes got up and walked the floors of all the rooms, including what would have been my sister’s room if she’d been willing to move into it. We’d cleared it out and painted it for her; she could have put up filmy curtains instead of living with the burlap ones Mom helped me make. Mom began to store boxes of our outgrown clothes in the room that my sister did not occupy, and eventually she put her sewing machine and ironing board back in.

One night just after Mom and Dad left for work, when the oil burner kicked off and left the house silent, I heard the crunching of driveway gravel, steps in a man’s cadence, so that I thought it must be my father returning. I looked out from the window in the landing and did not see his truck, but saw a tall stranger walking toward our porch, glancing side to side, his hands in his pockets. He wore a quilted, red-checked flannel shirt without a jacket though it was below freezing out. I descended the stairs and moved toward the front door as the man ascended to the porch, so the two of us walked toward one another, approaching each other with trepidation, he with his laced-up workboots, and myself barefoot with the shotgun loaded and pointed forward, safety off. The man did not knock, but the doorknob turned halfway. I touched it to assure myself that my parents had locked the door on their way out. The brass conducted cold from outside. I stepped back and pointed the gun at the latch.

“Wait until an intruder’s in the house,” my father had said, “or else you’ll have to drag him inside and tell the cops that’s where you shot him.” He had said this as if joking, but now I envisioned myself dragging that man’s body across the threshold by one limp arm or a belt loop. My father had told me to shoot a man anywhere on the abdomen, because I couldn’t miss at close range, and the twelve gauge would tear him apart. When I’d shot that first raccoon outside the chicken house its body turned inside out.

The man stood on the other side of the door, perhaps deciding which window to break, or deciding how much force it would take to destroy the front-door hardware. It never occurred to me that the man might have come for warmth or merely to steal money or the television. My sister sleeping upstairs no longer seemed a regular flesh and blood girl, but had become a rare treasure like a unicorn or a living swan made of white gold, and it made sense that our house would be under siege.

The gun grew heavy against my shoulder, but the weight felt natural, and the metal of the barrel and the trigger gradually warmed to my body temperature. Whenever I had actually pulled the trigger, I had been bruised by the recoil; now I looked forward to that burst of pain again, the price I would pay for exploding this man’s stomach or heart. One blast should take him down, but if he was still standing I would load and shoot again. After the first, there were four shots in the magazine, enough to kill a bull, or even a vampire. After I shot that raccoon, my father dug a hole and buried it right there; he said the other raccoons would smell it and stay away.

The man stepped to the side and looked in through the skinny single-paned window beside the door. Most likely he saw first the unidentifiable roundness of the end of the shotgun barrel, the size of a nickel, which I had moved to point straight at him. Then he cupped his hands against the glass and let his eyes adjust to the darkness, in which he gradually made out my face, my strawberry blonde hair which has darkened in the years since, my freckles, my gray eyes. My face gave away nothing, and in the several seconds during which the man stared into my eyes, he might have seen his own self turned inside out.

His face seemed surprisingly delicate except for a day’s growth of beard; his skin was pale and his eyes dark, quiet, and dilated. I had not expected an intruder to be beautiful. I let the gun slide forward slightly, so that the tip of the barrel kissed the window, clinked against the glass like the turning of a key. The pretty gaze dissolved. His jaw fell loose. As the man’s face disintegrated, I stood unearthly still, not even blinking, poised to fire. I felt no fear, standing in a flannel nightgown which was both too large and too short, whose pattern of galloping horses had faded, and whose frayed ruffle moved back and forth across my legs, brushing the bare skin just below my knees. I felt no fear, though my legs were thin, hardly bigger than the barrel of the gun, and my arms were strained. I felt no fear at the prospect of shooting this man, of watching his body crumple, then dragging the corpse inside, quickly so the heat didn’t escape from the house.

I held the gun up long after the man turned and walked down the steps and ran across our frozen lawn toward the road. His hands were still in his pockets, but he held his arms tight against his sides now. When he looked back over his shoulder at the house, he tripped over an apple tree stump my father had been meaning to dig out with the backhoe. He briefly lay prone before he took his hands out of his pockets to push himself up and continue to the road at a jog. The electricity in the air dissipated, but still I held that gun up, even after my arms began to shake, pointing it at the front door where now only the ghost of the man remained. The house air seemed dusty and suffocating. A screech owl cried as if broken-hearted from the woods across the road. The furnace kicked on and kicked off twice before I lifted that gun off my shoulder and let my arms hang free. I would not sleep that night but would walk the rooms of the house until morning. The floor boards creaked in a thousand places from my weight. I returned again and again to the room where my sister slept. Hour after hour, while I kept watch, her princess hair curled onto her pillow, and all night her long dark lashes rested against her cheeks, beneath eyes clenched firmly in dreams.

Image: Alexander, John White. “June.” 1911. Oil on canvas. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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