A crooked man used to visit our house from time to time. Mother would see him through the coloured glass and call up the stairs to Father.
“Your friend is here,” she’d say and Father would fly down the stairs to let him in.
Father’s friend was big and strange and so much like the man from the nursery rhyme that we were certain it was him: a crooked man that walked a crooked mile. He wore a crooked hat and held a crooked stick that he’d swing before him, jabbing at the ground like a boatman with an oar.
John, our eldest, says that he wasn’t really all that tall. He reckons the crooked man liked to seem taller than he was and this was the reason that he wore such a tall hat, and why that coat that made of his body a great rectangle, and why that pair of trousers whose ends dangled not much lower than the knee. And why else bother the door of a family with small children than to loom tall above them? Well, that’s John. In our memory, the crooked man was the tallest of all creatures. He would stand on the mat for a moment when Father opened the door, dip his head and cross over, into the hall.
We weren’t really frightened of the crooked man – Father let him into our home, after all – but we knew it was best to be out of the way when he came. Mother would busy the younger ones in the kitchen, or gather them in the back room. We older ones tended to hide upstairs, sometimes creeping to the edge of the landing to see if he was still with us. Father would take the crooked man into the front room or else into the back garden, where they’d prod sticks at the overgrowth or cobble together the beginnings of a bonfire.
When the crooked man did speak to us, we found him hard to understand. He used peculiar olden-time words and made jokes that weren’t really for children, but he was really very kind. He grinned and winked and ruffled our hair if ever we came near. He made pennies appear from our ears and offered us wrapped chocolates from deep in his pockets. The chocolates were always powdery and hard and misshapen and not to be eaten, and the pennies were only ever coppers, but the younger ones collected them gleefully, like treasures.
Little Ruth loved them especially. She would sometimes sneak into the front room when the crooked man was round and throw herself about his calves. Father and Mother called her magpie and spy and the crooked man would call her scallywag and run his big hand through her hair and Ruth every time would dash, grinning, from the room with something small and shiny in her hand.
There was once a time when the crooked man came to stay with us. Mother said that he needed some time to get back on his feet and that Father had offered him the front room. When he arrived, he carried a huge army bag, like a great big sausage, on his shoulder. Mother and Father welcomed him at the door, and those of us that were about made coy greetings before scattering in our usual way. Later we were more relaxed. I came down with John and Sarah when Mother was preparing dinner and the crooked man was sat in the corner of the room, arms crossed, on a low stool. His mouth was spread wide, and it curved up at the ends like a cat’s or a crocodile’s. A pipe jabbed out from its middle. The stool was an old thing he’d got from the garden. It stood on three legs, about a foot from the ground, and it wobbled. It was no good to anyone really, but the crooked man claimed the stool as his own for the duration of his stay. He used to carry it about the house with him, park it in a corner and lower himself onto it, groaning with the effort.
Most of the time the crooked man stayed in his room. You’d forget he was there at all and then the front door would slam and you’d know he was on one of his errands. On dry days he wandered into the garden to smoke his pipe and potter about. He used to pick up the broken toys from the lawn and try to fix them, but he wasn’t terribly good at it. He’d mess about with screws and a hammer for a couple of days before tossing the pieces back into the grass.
We grew to like the crooked man, I think. There was something comforting about the way he said so little, smiling away at us through his beard. He kept a pack of cards in his pocket that he liked to shuffle in his grubby hands. He’d show us tricks, and we’d try to work out how they were done by watching his fingers move.
Then one day Father came home and asked where he was, and Mother said she didn’t know, and they both went to the front room. John and I and the older ones watched from the stairway. The crooked man was there with Little Ruth upon his knee. Father stood before him, shouting and thrusting a finger. He looked so small in his fury against the man’s huge body. The crooked man said not a word but gathered his things and left the house and he wasn’t staying with us after that. Mother said that it was about time and let the windows open to air the room, and the stool went back in the garden.
Soon after, the younger ones began telling tales about the crooked man. They’d seen his hat over the garden fence, or they’d spotted his long coat and his arms go by the window. Mother said not to be silly, and we older ones laughed and rolled our eyes. One day John told the little ones that he’d seen the crooked man too, and Mother got angry. She told us to drop it and we did, and the younger ones soon stopped telling their tales.
Much later, when Father died, we let the crooked man back in. John had found him sleeping behind the garden fence, underneath a bush. Time has not been kind. The crooked miles had taken their toll upon the man, and he was now so tatty that we feared he’d fall to pieces if we lifted him too roughly from the leaves. He was not nearly as huge as I’d remembered, but how much this was the fault of my childish impressions and how much we each had aged, I can’t tell.
When we invited him back in, the crooked man accepted as though the offer was long overdue, and he settled in quickly. He claimed, this time, not a lowly stool but the high-backed Chesterton in the lounge. His pipe was no longer restricted to the back garden, and the smell of its smoke permeated the air and the furniture of every room. Little Ruth was grown by now and she sat upon his knee as she pleased while father’s body rotted in the ground beneath the buddleia bush.
“Even if you can’t recollect it, dying alters your perspective; you live a life less attached, more forward-looking. We’re all destined to die; it’s just that some have died already.”
If you’re resolved to leave the island, it is first of all necessary to die. No use asking how this state of affairs came about; perhaps it’s always been that way. Some here like to say we’re dead already – they call the island our “open coffin” – but how can you be dead without first dying? This business of dying, it’s no game, or, if a game, a perfectly serious one. Among us there are two ways. First, and by far the more common, you can live your whole life never leaving the island: live here and die here, and they’ll bury you in the graveyard. For those of us determined to cross the sea, however, there exists a second option: to depart your life before you go. Such a departure is typically a private, solitary affair. But in certain cases, as an act of charity to those left behind, family or a friend may be in attendance. 
All my life I’ve been fascinated by death. Many of us are, especially among the younger generation. As a child I had a fish that died. My only regret was that it had done so while I slept so that I missed its final moments. I kept the news from my mother for more than a week, studying the process of watery decomposition. My father, by then, was long gone. Some years later, while my sister lay dying, I slipped beneath her bed, only to be discovered and driven out. I dug graves and carried coffins one summer while at school. In dreams, I saw myself often on my deathbed.
What I’m trying to say is the time had now come for my own departure. Already the matter had been too long delayed: my two closest friends had crossed before me! Even dear Anika chose not to wait. And no work these past several years. I was an old man of thirty-two. Only there was the question of my mother with whom I shared a modest home. She was old and, it goes without saying, set in her ways. No question of her accompanying me on the crossing. The kindest solution, it seemed to me, the best way to stop her missing me, worrying and feeling alone – all the ways I’d felt since Anika crossed – was to have her there to witness.
Now, as I say, those who leave my island – Anika was one such – typically prefer a private passage. Alone in their bedrooms, they wait until dark before passing unobserved and making their way over Parrot Hill. No need for any note of explanation, no search for bodies; within an hour those left behind know they’re gone. And shortly afterwards, no doubt, the dead ones take ship. A solitary departure, slipping away like that, would have suited me well, but it wasn’t to be. I made up my mind to do it in the kitchen.
First I took a bath but decided not to shave. I put on a black suit, shoes and tie. I’d chosen the kitchen on account of the table. I removed the cloth and gave the pale wood a wipe. I draped a towel over the mirror. Candles in daylight seemed like a waste. That was when my mother arrived home, earlier than anticipated. I’d meant to break it to her gently. It wasn’t until she saw the mirror that she caught on.
She said it was impossible. She said a person can have only one home. She said we were bound to live the life we’re given, in the place we were given it and no other. Did I say she harbors religious convictions? People like that, women especially, fail to grasp the nature of the modern world. Dying, she persisted, passing on, wasn’t something you chose; it was something that happened to you. Not at all, I retorted. Being killed – by accident or disease or plain old time – was something that happened to you, as it had happened to my poor sister; dying was active, or at least it could be, a deliberate choice not to go on with a certain life. I could have brought up my father’s long-ago departure, but what’s the use of talking to the older generation? I feared the argument would grow heated, and I’d no wish to leave her after exchanging words.
So I simply stretched out on the table, with the heels of my shoes hanging off the end, and I shut my eyes fast. My mother made a noise like porridge bubbling on the stove. She said she’d no time for my nonsense. For a minute or two I could hear her pottering about the kitchen. Distraction. A little impatience.
Life is stubborn.
It was trickier than I’d imagined: the leaving-go.
But at last…
Even by the light of our paraffin lamp, I could tell she’d suffered. She’d changed into a mourning hat and dress, and flat black shoes. No doubt she’d had quite a shock at first. And then she’d pulled a chair up beside the table to wail and weep, her head like a wilted flower and a shawl draped over it.
For myself I felt pleasantly detached, like I’d had a good back rub and a nap. It was all very interesting, if I may say so. I’d happily have taken my time, examining my condition, describing my emotions and state of mind, but I had a ship to catch. I sat up very gently but of course, with the shadows and so on, she let out a scream. “You died,” she stammered, pointing a stubby finger. “You’re gone.”
And it was back to the shawl over the head, her body quaking as though the island was suffering one of its tremors. I was ready to steal out the door, but when she looked up again something had shifted. The puzzled stare she gave me then, as though dredging her memory for my face. For a moment she seemed on the brink of recognition, but then – she spoke as if it had happened a year ago – “My son is gone.”
I’d heard about, and counted upon, this phenomenon in cases of non-solitary crossing. Of course my mother couldn’t know me now she saw me dead. (Had I chanced to see Anika afterwards, climbing Parrot Hill on her way to the ship, would I have known even her?) A week or a month from now, so they say, I would no longer know myself.
“He was my only boy,” my mother told me. “You have a slight look of him, sir.”
I forced a smile, still sitting in my black suit on the kitchen table.
“Not that he was my favorite. The other died young, a girl.”
So much for filial devotion! I ought to have cleared out years ago! There was nothing to be gained by lingering. Best get off and out the door before she started asking questions. Of course she pressed me to stay. That relentless hospitality of ours!
And so, late last night, it was my turn to climb Parrot Hill. At the top I halted, breathing hard. Down below shone the lights of our island’s port, from which I’d begin my final journey. It’s an arduous crossing, they say, but I feel the hardest part is behind. Perhaps you’re wondering who “they” may be, since of course none returns to tell their tale. Ours is not the first generation to leave the island. I suppose, for all the barriers and the distance between, word has a way of filtering back.
They even say, I’ve heard some say this at least, that you can leave our island without first dying. To cross like that, it sounds strange but it could be; in a place without rhyme or reason, why expect absolute rules? They say, however, that such poor souls gather at the stern rail, gazing back at the empty horizon. As the scent of our island fades some hurl themselves into the churning wake. Others, they say, complete the voyage and descend the gangplank from the ship. They stand again on dry ground but you cannot say they have arrived. Without first dying you can cross over, they say, but you never really arrive. In order to start a new life you must first set a seal on the old. This may all be so; I’m not yet in a position to comment.
As for this experience of being dead, it feels not much like anything at all. Detached, as I say, a sort of living death, though not the kind endured by those who choose to stay here. Over there, in that new land, I’ll continue for a while to no longer exist. And then, with luck, I will live again (or for the first time). I’ll be born again, gradually, only that person, of course, will not be me. He’ll not remember me, or the island with its blossoms and birdsong, or death on a kitchen table. This forgetting process may have begun already; on board the ship, I’m told, it will gather pace.
And will oblivion, finally, be absolute? Some say yes; others are less certain. As I descend the switchback path to the port where the ship is in, I’m wondering about Anika of course, my sweet Anika. Say our paths should cross, hers and mine, over there, on the street of some teeming metropolis. A slim chance, no doubt. Romantic daydream! But, truly, would there be no glimmer of recognition at all? A second glance? A feeling? Surely some echoes of our old lives and loves survive the crossing?
 Do these words of mine puzzle you? Understand that my country lacks all significance; a pinprick in a broad ocean, it’s a long way from anywhere and nothing whatever like yours. Here, we have no industries – once, long ago, there were copper mines. No science or technology either, no computers even, and precious little in the way of logic or reason.
 The distinction between the two verbs is clearer in our own language.
 Does this peculiar practice of ours seem barbaric? Really it’s far more merciful. Easier for a mother to have her child die than have him take ship without prospect of return. Better mourning than missing.
 To truly make sense of all this, you’d need to have lived our lives, and deaths. You’d have to have made that long, lonely sea-crossing too.
Here Lies Steven Fulton Beloved Brother, Uncle, Friend
Here lies Steve the peeve, Hattie said in a singsong voice. A life with no strife was ended with a knife.
Hattie liked knives. And she hadn’t liked Steve. Because Steve had liked Hattie too much.
Lived Life. Loved Life. Said the inscription underneath.
Now that was just an outright lie. She bet that Steve had not loved life at all. He hadn’t done any of the typical begging when he easily could have. There’d definitely been time for that.
But no, Hattie couldn’t think like that; she was here to pay her respects. Hattie bowed her head like they did in the movies and counted the sixty seconds for her Moment of Silence.
Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty. Done.
Goodbye Steve. Until next time Steve.
She needed to move on to her next grave. Her visits were timed. Hattie couldn’t be late to her next one, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to visit them all. And they were expecting her. Hattie owed it to each of them to be punctual.
It had rained the night before. Hattie could tell because the earth was squishy beneath her feet. She liked the way it felt under her Mary Janes, which were buckled over her knee-length cable-knit socks that Hattie had to wear because they were part of her uniform. She sunk in a little with each step, an inch closer to her friends. The tiny suction made it harder to bring her foot up again, which made Hattie happy. It made her feel like they wanted her there, to stay with them.
Don’t worry, I’m here, she said. I always come back. Squish, squish.
Adrianne Walter Always In Our Hearts. Taken From Us Too Soon.
She was taken at the exactly right time, Hattie said back to the headstone. At the time that she was supposed to be taken. No, there was a better word for it. Meant to be taken. There it was. She was taken at the exactly right time that she was meant to be taken, Hattie repeated.
Hattie liked words, but she didn’t like when words were used incorrectly. It was a wicked thing to tell the wrong story. That’s one of the reasons she came to the graveyard – outside of visiting her friends. To tell the stories the right way.
Taken. Now that was a good word. It was the right word. Hattie traced her hands along the indentations of the inscription, feeling the damp, cool roughness of the stone against her fingertips. She curled over the word taken twice.
Adrianne Walter never did falter. Until a new girl was born, whom Adrianne scorned. As hard as the younger girl tried, the older sister despised. So an accident down the stairs was conceived, and Adrianne’s death was achieved.
Hattie stepped back for Adrianne’s Moment of Silence. She didn’t like to stand on the graves when giving them her respects. That was like standing on someone’s stomach, or on their arm, or even on their private parts. And that was not polite.
Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six.
Hattie liked Adrianne’s grave. It was one of her favorites in the whole graveyard. It looked exactly how a grave should look. A rectangular plot of grass with a rectangular stone standing upright exactly where the fractured skull would be. The sun shone down on the grave as if to agree.
The collection of colors – grass, stone and sky – probably looked pretty in the sunlight, but not to Hattie. Hattie was colorblind, which she liked. Her world was an array of grays. Darker grays, lighter grays, some grays as close to black as it could get. That’s another reason she liked the graveyard so much. Gray felt right in the graveyard. Gray was the way it was supposed to be.
When it was cloudy out, her grays were more muted, more comfortable. But when it was bright like this, everything seemed more pronounced. She felt the corners of her eyes twitch towards graves that were not hers to visit, which Hattie didn’t like. Things in the light stood out where they shouldn’t, drawing her attention from what she was supposed to be doing, which was paying her respects.
Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty! Done.
Adrianne would always be special to Hattie. Adrianne was Hattie’s first.
Goodbye Taken Adrianne. I’ll see you next time Taken Adrianne.
Hattie smiled. She liked that she’d thought of a new nickname for her sister.
She took out her light gray watch from her coat pocket to make sure that she was on time. If she left right now to go to her next grave, she would be. Hattie let out a sigh of relief.
Squish, squish, squish, squish.
Joshua Frymark At Peace The Lord Is My Shepherd
Joshua Frymark lived in a sty-mark. He was a terrible old neighbor, who always demanded free labor. One day he was cruel, so Hattie pushed his wheelchair into the pool. Not one person in the town missed him as he drowned.
Hattie clapped her hands. She loved when her stories worked out like that.
She stepped back to make sure she was in the right spot and bowed her head like she was supposed to for Joshua’s Moment.
Around thirty-one and thirty-two though, Hattie started to get bored. She could feel her hands wanting to fidget, which was not right for paying her respects, so she put them in her coat pockets to quiet them.
Hattie kept exactly three things in her coat pockets. Two things in her left-hand coat pocket and one thing in her right-hand coat pocket. The first thing in her left-hand coat pocket was her watch. She didn’t like things on her skin, and her pocket was the perfect place for it to go. Her watch kept her on time. And that was important. Dependable people were always on time. The second thing in her left-hand coat pocket was her pocketknife. She needed it first and foremost for safety. And she never knew when one of the tools from her pocketknife would come in handy.
Hattie held her breath while she made sure it was still there. When her fingers closed around the cool metal, she let out the air and enjoyed the sight of her gray, wispy breath. That was one thing she had that her friends didn’t have, which Hattie liked.
Her Moment of Silence for Joshua now complete, Hattie left to go to her next grave. She checked her watch again and was reassured that she was still exactly on time.
Because of the rain, all the little worms were out on the ground. Some of them had already died, which was a shame. But some of them were still squiggling and squirming, which Hattie liked. And the bitter, rotting smell that always came after rain still lingered in the air, which Hattie also liked. It was very appropriate for the graveyard. Aside from the sun being out, this was a very good day for her visit.
Hattie made a game of stepping on the wriggling worms as she made her way over to her next grave. Double points for two plus worms in one step, but minus points for stepping on the ones that were already dead. Wormy hopscotch. Squish, squish, squish.
Mary Roosner Precious Angel Beloved By Family, Cherished By Friends
Mary Roosner was a loser. A girl with so many friends, she lost them all in the end. She had a tongue like a snake, and a laugh that did grate, but no blood was reserved when she got what she deserved.
Hattie was still working on that one.
There were no flowers this time. Last time there had been, which Hattie really didn’t like. She’d had to tear the gray petals up into shreds and hack the stems into little pieces with her pocketknife, which had certainly come in handy that day. She’d stabbed at the flower confetti until it had mixed with the dirt underneath, at least as far as Hattie could see. Being colorblind did have some disadvantages.
It had taken thirty-four minutes and twenty-two seconds to get rid of the flowers completely, which had thrown Hattie’s schedule entirely off track for the day. She’d had to skip seven graves, which upset Hattie because she didn’t get to pay her respects like they were expecting.
Except for Mary’s, there were never flowers on any of Hattie’s graves, which she liked. They made the graves more hers. Besides, flowers just rotted. And there was enough rotting going on in the graveyard already. If she ever had any extra time at the end of her visits, Hattie liked to clean the flowers off of the other graves that weren’t hers.
Even though she didn’t want to, Hattie stayed completely still for Mary’s Moment of Silence. But she left exactly after that. Hattie didn’t need to check her watch to know that she would be ahead of schedule; she was usually ahead of schedule after Mary Roosner. Being ahead of schedule wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as being behind schedule. At the next grave Hattie would linger a little for time to catch up.
But as Hattie squished her way over to her next grave, grinding the corpses of little worms into their own earthy graves, she saw Mr. Peter across the way and stopped short. This was not his usual time.
Mr. Peter was the caretaker of the graveyard. His shoulders were hunched with age, and his skin hung slack over his bones in a skeletal way, but he was still strong enough to dig and fill Hattie’s graves. He always wore clothes that were the same shade of gray, which Hattie liked because she knew what to expect. Gray suited him. Mostly because a general grayness surrounded him: a grayish face, a grayish demeanor. Hattie liked Mr. Peter most of all because he was always nice to her. But this was the wrong time for him to be here, which she did not like. She did not like that at all. It was going to throw off her entire schedule. Nothing would get done after this. Nothing. She knew it. Her friends knew it. The graveyard knew it. Hattie started to breath heavily.
Mr. Peter saw Hattie and waved.
Hattie froze. She couldn’t bring herself to wave back. This day was ruined, destroyed, dead.
Everything okay over there, Hattie? Mr. Peter called out. School let out early today?
School had not let out early. It was Friday, and Fridays were always half days at Hattie’s boarding school. But there was no way for Mr. Peter to know that; he never saw her on Fridays since this was not his usual time.
Mr. Peter was setting up with a gray shovel next to a darker gray plot of land from which the grass had already been skinned, but he stopped and looked like he was going to start walking over to her.
Hattie absolutely could not let that happen. She didn’t like to be close to people unless it was completely necessary. And it was certainly not completely necessary right now.
She had to think of a way that would keep him over there, to reassure him that everything was okay. Even though it wasn’t. Nothing was okay. Her day had been violently cleaved in two. She didn’t know if she would ever feel okay again. Everything was too bright. Her whole body felt tense and tingly.
Hattie whimpered, but that didn’t help. He was going to start walking over any second. She put her arms over her ears. She wanted to scream. Think Hattie, think!
She dropped her hands into her coat pockets and clutched onto her pocketknife, drawing the blade. She had to let some of herself out or she would burst, Hattie knew it. She ran her palm along the blade, back and forth, hard enough until it felt wet, which Hattie needed. The pain was enough to pull everything together again, at least for a little while. Hattie exhaled at the release.
What are you doing Mr. Peter? Hattie finally shouted back, in her best I’m Okay voice.
Mr. Peter seemed relieved by her answer. He picked up his gray shovel, which confirmed for Hattie that he wasn’t going to come over.
Just getting a head start on the next one, Mr. Peter said back in his grayish way.
She didn’t know if Peter was his first name or his last name. It would have bothered her if she hadn’t thought of the solution of calling him Mr. Peter, which covered both possibilities.
Who’s it for? Hattie asked to keep him safely over there, across the way.
Don’t know yet, Mr. Peter said back, laughing his gray laugh. But there’s always someone who comes along.
That’s true. There’s always someone next.
Hattie gasped when it hit her. The grave. It was hers.
All of the pressure in her body released in a whoosh. Hattie no longer felt tense and tingly, she felt light and shimmery. The brightness of the day wasn’t too bright, it was exactly as bright as it needed to be for everything to be in sharp focus. She knew what she had to do. Everything made sense again. Her schedule had been cleared by Mr. Peter for a reason. The day was still hers. In fact, it was more hers than it had been before when she was spending it with her friends. Now, Hattie was going to get to do something special just for her.
Tom Banner was a creature who posed as a teacher.
What? Mr. Peter shouted.
A man with no smile, he did things that were vile.
Mr. Peter put his hand behind his ear to help him hear her.
He made fun of her grammar, so she cracked his skull with a hammer.
Speak up Hattie, you know I love your poems.
Hattie pulled her watch with her bloodied hand out of her left coat pocket and checked it. She was exactly on time again.
Thank you, Mr. Peter, she said loud enough this time. But I have to go now. I don’t want to be late.
She turned abruptly and walked away quickly, no longer caring about the worms or the graves. She had somewhere else to be.
Hattie shoved her right hand into her coat pocket and soothed herself with what was to come. She stroked it up and down, up and down: the last thing she kept on her at all times.
A Question of Birth
The foxes are in the garden again. Five cubs and one Mother.
Magda peers out into the gloom; the night is moving within itself, shadows lapping at the edges of the trees, trickling over the grass, and pouring thick into the sky. The cubs are like fish swimming through the murk, ghostly and fluid, weaving through the long grass and disappearing into the forest. It’s the noise that keeps waking her up, that choking staccato cry that clatters out of their throats.
When she was little her Mother told her that noise is called gekkering. She loved that word, kept it well polished and ready to use like a special piece of jewellery. She didn’t understand when her Mother told her she couldn’t apply the word to humans, Magda could make that sound too so why couldn’t she describe herself as gekkering?
“Because you’re not an animal,” her Mother had explained. Magda had failed to see why that was relevant.
The Fox Mother sits patient and unmoving as the cubs play, her paws delicately placed together, her head held haughty and proud. When Magda looks out, she swears the Fox nods at her.
Magda has always lived here. Her cottage is old and weathered, nestled into the countryside and half swallowed by its greenery; ivy grows in through open windows, mushrooms sprout along the edge of floorboards, mice make its hollows their home. It is small but it is all she has ever needed – one room to sleep in, one to wash in, and one to work and eat in – she has never understood people who want more.
Outside of these rooms her garden slopes down a hill, falling and sprawling with the abandon of a drunken whore. It is furrowed and wild; weeds tangle like hair and ants crawl within the mess. At one corner she grows small anaemic vegetables and keeps a chicken coop. On the other side she buries all the animals she works on – a cluttered graveyard of local mammals.
She has always lived alone, but that does not mean she doesn’t need company. She has two visitors who satisfy and submerge this need; one man and one woman. They come separately, have never met nor heard of one another. She keeps each one secret, revelling in their delicious ignorance. The visitors come at different times; the man twice a week, Sundays and Wednesdays, sometimes he stays the night. There is no set time for when he arrives or leaves, it all depends on factors he alludes to but does not explain. He is bouncing and childish, takes up all her time and whips the house into a frenzy. When he leaves, he places money on the kitchen table even though she has told him not to. She assumes this money is for her silence; she knows that the man has a wife somewhere out there, past her garden and through the woods, but she does not understand how he thinks she would tell her anything.
The woman is more punctual, set in her ways; she arrives every Friday at five p.m. and lingers until lunchtime on Saturday. Her presence is more serious; they sit in silence for long stretches of time, bodies languid so their brains can move frantic over the subjects she brings with her and which she expects Magda to have opinions on. In bed Magda likes the feel of the woman’s skin on hers, the soft rub of it, the dead flop of sleeping limbs.
Magda makes the small amount of money she needs through her taxidermy. She could make a lot of money from it if she wanted to, her main buyer tells her its popularity has expanded to eyewatering levels. He says half the people he sells to now have never heard of these animals, animals that are just a few miles away from them – badgers and voles and mice – people buy them thinking they are exotic creatures from foreign lands. He tells her she could make a fortune off her mounts, but it would mean she would have to work faster, and she likes taking her time over each animal, getting to know them while she poses them.
She catches all the animals herself. Hunts them through the straggle of forest that surrounds her; it used to be bigger, to stretch across land that has now been devoted to cavernous houses with neat flat lawns. People rarely venture into the forest but sometimes Magda comes across a stray dog walker who has veered off the pavement and gotten lost amongst the trees. She can usually hear them and get away before they see her but sometimes one will startle her. They will usually ask for help, clutching their dog lead, eyes snapping around the foliage. The dogs are always similarly scared, quivering pathetic things decked out in little booties and designer outfits. The humans and the dogs provoke nothing but contempt in Magda; she never says anything, just points, and there has never been a time when both human and dog haven’t flinched at the movement of her arm.
She has traps set up across the land. Cages with apple cores and sometimes deep pits covered with foliage. The cages are better, the animals are cleaner when she catches them like that, less liable to break bones or scratch skin.
When she gets the animal home, she skins it, preserves the skin, poses its bloody limbs into the right position and freezes it in place. She uses plaster to make her own form and when it’s set she drapes the skin over and sews it up. Finally, she fits the eyes and the teeth, and then it is done, ready to go out into a world that wasn’t interested in it when it was alive.
The woman brings up the history of pregnancy. It is summer and they have just eaten a dinner of rabbit and cabbage and are reclining, full and hot. The woman has taken her top off and her breasts hang plump, jellyfish-like, her stomach a swelled mound. Magda thinks this is what a pregnant woman must look like, although she has never seen one. The woman says human gestation is parasitic; she speaks of something nestled inside you, filling your cavity with its expanding body and sucking the nutrients from you. She says pregnancy is proof that God hates women, that they were made to be used and thrown away afterwards. It was humans who righted this wrong and got rid of this unnecessary quirk of reproduction, transplanting it into labs and frozen rooms so that women could finally be equal to men.
Magda doesn’t agree, she finds the idea of pregnancy beautiful, thinks women are missing out now. When she was younger one of the dogs died when she was pregnant, and Magda cut her belly open to see. The puppies were all there, tiny and pink and glistening, just about fully formed; they looked like burstable sacks of fruit and she thought it was beautiful. What a woman could do, Magda thought, what potential they held within them.
“I want a child,” she says to the woman but is ignored. Later on, in bed, the woman clamps a palm salty with sweat over Magda’s mouth in what she assumes is a punishment.
The foxes are digging, and as they dig, they scream. This has been going on for weeks. The initial breathy chattering quickly descending into high-pitched shrieks; they sound like women choking through wordless pain. They emerge with the darkness, start their squawking when Magda is chewing her dinner and linger until she falls asleep.
When the foxes first appeared, she was worried about her chickens and thoroughly inspected the wire mesh surrounding the coop, mending even the tiniest tears. But to her knowledge, the foxes have not gone hear the coop; the hole they dig every night is always concentrated on the one spot. In the mornings she goes out and using a shovel undoes this hole, patting the loose earth down just to be torn asunder again.
The man sleeps over and before they go to bed, she warns him about the foxes.
“I’ve never seen a fox,” he mumbles, pulling the sheets over his pale, smooth body.
He is cold in bed, there is a metallic sheen to his limbs that sends chilled shock waves through her body when she brushes against him. They lie awake, murmuring together until the fox’s squalls start, their nightly song leaking into the bedroom.
“There, that’s them,” she whispers, sitting up to better hear.
He frowns, a single line appearing in his otherwise taut forehead, “I can’t hear anything.”
The cries are loud and clamouring, they fill the room and echo off the thick damp walls.
“Can’t you hear?”
He shakes his head, eyes drooping. Within a few seconds he is sleeping, his body unnaturally still, breath humming through him.
She turns away, lets the wailings of the foxes rock her into unsteady sleep.
The dog is small and shaky. At first, she thinks it is an oversized rat tangled in rags, but then she notices the collar stamped with a series of numbers, and realises the rags are a sky-blue baby-grow soiled with mud.
It’s loud and yappy, keeps baring its bleached teeth at her as she tries to fish it out. The fall down the trap has broken one of its legs, it sits in a pained crunched pose and wiggles to move away from her hand. Its tail is a spray of straight black hair, unnervingly human-like and quivering with nervous rage. Magda doesn’t understand why anyone would want this thing as a pet, they may as well invite a badger into their home.
She imagines how strange its skull must look like, how dominated by those eyes it must be. When she pushes the knife under its leg and into its heart it twitches a few times, massive eyes bulging so much she half expects them to pop.
Dogs are tricky to sell, so she keeps it for herself. She poses it into a placid sitting position, paws lined neatly up, but the size of the glass eyes make it look wild and off kilter, the cocktail of anger and fear still potent.
She places it on the mantlepiece above the fireplace so it can watch her work and brings its carcass into the garden to bury it.
The soil is dried out with the heat of the summer, she stabs her shovel deep into it and scoops up parched crumbling lumps. When the hole is deep enough, she gets on her knees and plunges her hands in to finish, as she works her hands feel tangled in something fine yet resistant, she breaks through what she assumes is roots until the earth is smooth. It is only after she places the body into the hole that she notices the clumps of black hair dangling from her fingers.
When the man comes for his visit he stares at the dog, his mouth hanging open like a fresh wound.
“Where did you get that?” he asks, and she explains while chopping carrots.
There is a silence only filled with the sharp snap of the blade hitting the chopping board, she senses something and turns around.
“What is wrong with you?” he asks, his face livid red.
“It got into one of my traps,” she explains, laying the knife down and walking towards him.
He takes a step back and away from her, grabbing his coat from the seat and pulling it onto his arms with a shambolic haste.
“That’s like killing someone’s child,” he spits.
She doesn’t reply. She can see already that he is done; he will have to find someone else to distract him from him wife.
He slams the door on his way out. She watches from the window as he climbs into his slick car; the headlights dart frantically over the thick curtain of the forest, briefly illuminating the Mother Fox, sitting, watching.
The sounds start as they usually do, indistinct scuffling as she eats her dinner; her molars sinking into scraps of overcooked meat and undercooked carrots. The little dog sits and watches her, and she intermittently peers up at it to nod neighbourly.
When she slips into bed the sounds are changing, there is something different lingering in the gaps between the fox’s screams. It’s wavering and nebulous, sounds like something stretching – skin pulled taught over a drum, begging to be hit.
She gives up on sleep and moves to the window. The foxes have made their hole and instead of continuing to play they are all sat around it patiently, the moonlight turning their fur colourless, intangible.
Magda grabs her coat and pulls it on over her nightdress, shoves bare feet into heavy boots and plunges herself out into the night.
The sky has given itself over to the darkest point of the night, a breeze rustles the trees at the bottom of the garden, and they whisper together like a group of gossips. It’s still warm, the earth holding onto the heat it gathered from the sun. She runs to the other side of the house and over to the foxes; she expects them to run when she nears them, but they just stare at her – five sets of glassy eyes considering her movements like she is a bug caught in a clod of earth.
The sound is more insistent here, a faltering hum pressing into her ears and seeping into her brain, filling it with a primordial ocean-like slosh.
Her boots sink into the mud, its slick and watery even though it hasn’t rained in weeks. In the faint light from the moon it looks uncomfortably red and she imagines herself walking across a massive opened belly; tripping along the glistening intestines, pressing boot prints into the meaty hunks of spleen and stomach.
The fox cubs are covered in the gunk of the wet mud, spots of it flickered over their faces, threads hanging from their mouths. The Mother Fox is clean, resplendent. She catches Magda’s eyes and nods towards the hole as if inviting her to take a closer look.
The sound vibrates when Magda looks down, it pulls her towards the hole with a numinous quality; this is something special she thinks to herself, something that must be honoured. She bends over to get a closer look. At the centremost part of the hole something is moving, squirming under the surface, stretching the bubbled milky skin of the earth with each rhythmic throb of movement – begging to be let free.
Heat prickles over her, she snaps up and takes a step back, but the Mother Fox yaps out a sharp reprimand. Magda looks at her, and her eyes – tawny and flecked – glare back.
Magda knows what she has to do. She moves slowly, easing down to kneel. Her knees squelch into the mud and it seeps into her nightdress; dark stains and cool dampness spreading, making the material transparent over her knees.
The sound is more insistent here, it puts her teeth on edge, sounds like a ghastly whistling gap cracking into the world.
The cubs start scratching at the ground along the edge of the hole, not trying to dig, just showing her what to do. She nods and raises her hands, already aware that what she is about to do is something profound and irreversible.
Fingers plunge into the balloon-stretch of the earth, oozing into throbbing heat; mud caking fingers, pebbles breaking skin. The Mother Fox yaps again – it isn’t working, so Magda forces her nails in, scratching until she feels that layer give way and suddenly the sound stops. She searches in the chasm of the wetness until her hand touches something warm, living. She grasps it and pulls it out – a baby.
It starts to cry when it is completely free. Toothless mouth screaming blindly, tiny lungs sucking in air and pushing out noise. Tears dampen Magda’s face, and sweat glimmers over her body. The baby reaches a tiny curled fist out to her face and she hears herself laugh.
When she looks up the foxes are gone.
Magda loves her son. She has never felt love like this before, like something sharp implanted within her chest – new but irrevocable. Sometimes when she looks at him – at the tiny slivers of his fingernails or the pink buds of his toes – the thing in her chest shifts and sends tears to shimmer in her eyes.
He grows quickly, is crawling within a week and tearing his way through the cottage. His hair is thick and dark, tangled as weeds and rough like stone; when she nuzzles her nose into the mop of it, she smells moss and the promise of rain. He belongs here, in this house filled with the sounds and the colours of the forest, he belongs with her.
But she was unprepared, spends the first few days scrambling to get things right. When the woman comes to visit, Magda sticks only her head out of the door and tells her she is too busy.
It takes her a while to figure out what to feed him. He is fussy. She starts with cow’s milk, waves it under his nose and raises it to his mouth but he isn’t interested; she rubs it on his gums but that just makes him gag and cry.
She tries vegetables – boiled to oblivion and mashed into a paste, this he throws against the walls and squeals in delight at the long colourful swatch. He sticks his tongue out at the little tender bits of cooked meat she offers him, smashes his fists into the glob of scrambled eggs.
When he starts to crawl, she finds him tugging at the front door, scratching at the wood with his shell-thin nails, so she lets him out and follows his delighted gigglings into the garden. She studies the line of trees, searching for the foxes and when she looks back at her son, he is stuffing fistfuls of soil into his mouth. His teeth have started to grow, and he munches them into the soft give of the earth before swallowing happily and smiling dark-toothed at her.
She gasps and pulls him up and away from the ground, but he screams ravenous, kicking and squirming with a strength she didn’t think possible. Eventually she gives in, places him back down and he resumes his meal. Magda sits down, weight pressing into the damp of the soil and watches him; the purple hole of his smacking mouth, the look of satiated pleasure in his dark eyes. He picks the worms and the beetles out and sucks contentedly around them, his cheeks hollowed as he chomps into their brittle shells.
When he is done, he crawls over to her, lays his head onto her lap and falls asleep.
The woman comes back looking concerned. Magda invites her in, ushering her into the nest she has created. He is walking now, the size of a toddler, he can say “mama” and “worm” and still mixes up which one is which sometimes.
Magda leads the woman into the bedroom where her son is napping, eyes closed and twitching through a dream. The woman stares at him, blank and uncomprehending. She walks back into the kitchen and Magda gently closes the bedroom door and follows her.
“Where did you get it?” the woman asks, her voice shrill.
“He’s mine,” Magda replies calmly.
The woman’s chest heaves, her face is empty but her mouth twitches strangely, like a malfunctioning screen stuttering through images.
“That’s not possible,” she spits.
For a second Magda thinks the woman is going to hit her. Her body quivers with a perceptible anger that wavers in the air like heat waves off tarmac, she imagines it filling the cottage like a poison; peeling paint off the walls, rotting the food, killing the plants.
But the woman just storms out, slams the front door behind her so loud it wakes her son, his cries mingling with the sounds of tyres screeching away.
She brings him hunting; teaches him how to set traps, how to track animals, how to be so quiet the forest accepts you as a part of it.
He moves silent and inquisitive, chubby hands grasping at bark and pulling heads off flowers. Every now and then they stop for a snack, Magda crunching carrots, her son spooning globs of soil into his mouth.
When they find a rabbit in one of her traps, she tells him to stand back while she kills it, but he can’t seem to help himself. He wants to be close to it, presses his eye next to the rabbits and strokes its fur gently.
When she shows him how to skin it, he is particularly interested in the carcass left behind, pawing at its bare sticky muscles, the stringy tendons. She tells him to stop but before she can do anything, he’s licking it and then ripping strips off with his nails and dropping them down his throat.
In a way she is glad, raw meat is more nutritious than soil.
The scream is short and piercing, it slices into Magda’s sleep and drags her awake. Her heart pounds in her chest, the threads of sleep still glimmering over her eyes. Another scream answers the first, hoarse and frantic, a panicked thing profound with pre-emptive sorrow. She listens and a third scream shatters into her, it is only then that she realises the other side of the bed is empty – her son is gone.
She searches the house, ripping piles of clothes apart hoping he is hiding underneath them. The foxes continue screaming, tearing up the night with their strangled cries. They pass the screams between them, taking turns and sharing out the grief, like a group of keening women. Magda knows what they are telling her. She stops looking.
She pulls boots on and walks out; the Mother Fox is already there waiting. When she sees Magda she stands, starts trotting down the road. Her cubs, almost fully grown gather around Magda’s ankles and urge her to follow. Before she moves, she runs back into the house and comes back with a bag bulging with something light and pointed.
They walk for hours, until the countryside slips away and they’re in wide sanitized streets hemmed in with gigantic glass buildings. Magda feels vulnerable, and she can tell the foxes do too, their fur stands on end, their eyes are wary. From here she can’t see the stars or smell the earth; the streetlights are so bright it may as well be day, and everything smells like burning sugar.
Eventually they come to an estate of houses like the one at the edge of the forest, all big, identical, and white. The houses are all dark, apart from one. The Mother Fox trots over to it and sits in the lawn, Magda follows; when she steps on the grass it feels bouncy yet hard, she looks down and realises it is plastic.
This close to the house she can hear the faint strain of a woman crying, the babble of it waving gently in the wind like silk.
Magda doesn’t knock, just opens the door and follows the crying up marble stairs. Something is crawling its way through her veins, cold as steel and bright as the sun at noon. The bedroom door is ajar, she pushes it open with her fingertips and there they are – her two visitors. The man stands glowering over the bed, his face shattered; a collection of shards glinting nothing but blind pain. The woman is hunched on the bed; her head hanging limp and the bubbles of her crying slipping out from behind the curtain of her hair. Her legs are splayed, something small and blanketed nestled between them.
Neither of them says anything when she walks over to the bed, the man looks at her and down at his feet. There is an absence about him; it feels as if he is sleepwalking – a shell driven by something subconscious and distant.
The woman keeps sobbing, still hasn’t looked up. Magda knows what to expect but her breath still catches in her throat when she looks down. Instead of her son with his round flushed cheeks and his ears like mushrooms there is just a pile of soil collected in the blanket, dry and crumbling as if it has never known rain, strands of hair embedded like roots.
She gathers it in her arms, careful to not let any spill. The woman doesn’t acknowledge her. Magda considers telling them they should have known this would happen, she considers showing them the gawping wound of her grief, but she knows there is no point. They would not listen to her and she would only drag herself further under the current of her sorrow, instead she digs one arm into her bag. When she pulls it out, she hears the man gasp. She lays it gently into the woman’s lap and watches as her long spindly fingers instantly curl around it, sink into the fur with a maternal grasp.
The woman raises her head, her eyes two bloodshot balls of steel. She cradles the taxidermized dog to her breast and the man sits down next to her, gazes down at it like something long fought for, finally achieved.
“Thank you,” the woman’s voice grinds out and the man nods. They both look glossy and far away, preserved in the moment and ready to gather dust.
Magda carries the pile out, The Mother Fox and her cubs are waiting in the neon green of the fake grass. She drops to her knees in front of The Mother Fox and lays the ashy pile of dirt at her paws.
The Mother Fox nods once, amber eyes soaking in the light from the house and bouncing it back into Magda. She lowers her head, ears pulled back and hair bristling in the wind, her pink tongue unfurls, laps at the small pile of soil hesitantly at first and then, consumes it.
“So you know, the theatre is haunted,” the bar back said.
“Haunted?” repeated Harveen.
“Haunted,” he said, nodding.
She assumed he was joking. They threaded through labyrinthine kitchen corridors that somberly glowed with bone laminate and steel. He was short but promising, solidly built with guileless blue eyes and blond hair razed at the sides. Like most native Icelanders she had encountered, he spoke faultless English with a jangling glissando accent.
They ascended a narrow, darkened stairway. As she swayed on her heels, he righted her with a hand on her hip and a yawning, ennui-riddled chasm deep within her twitched in response, very slightly. Governed by impulse, she constantly sought new experiences, trips abroad and increasingly shameless conquests, like the bar back that evening. They exchanged smiles, and she permitted herself the barest soupçon of guilt for not missing Max.
It was the opening gala of a film festival in Reykjavík. For the past few weeks, following a two-month television gig in the Ukraine, she had worked as a script supervisor on an Icelandic film. After wrapping the shoot that evening, the cast and crew headed to the party at the National Theatre to celebrate. Harveen first stopped by her hostel to shower and change, painting her face with an exacting hand. Before leaving, she removed her platinum wedding band and locked it in her suitcase.
The lobby was deserted when she arrived at the theatre. Wisps of conversation and music unfurled from the basement. She hung her battered fur coat in a mirrored alcove and hurried downstairs.
The evening passed in a blur. New wave music, revelers in leather and dark wool cut on the bias. After a few hours she went to fetch her coat, but the lobby had been locked for the night. The bar back, with whom she had flirted, offered to retrieve it, cautioning that they’d take the long way through back areas.
They climbed the stairway and reached the main level of the theatre. “You are Brazilian?” he asked. She shook her head. He led her through a door and flicked a switch. Milky brightness bled from above. “Boyfriend?”
She considered him. He really was too short. And she was bored with overseas romances. Her last, with a South African stuntwoman the previous week, had been decidedly lackluster.
“Married,” she admitted. “And Indian. My parents are moving from Punjab to live with my husband and me in California,” she added.
“That’s nice, isn’t it?” he said, disappointment tinging his face.
“Not really,” she said. “But we won’t talk about that.”
They stepped into a hall with crenellated chandeliers and velvet curtains that deadened the shallow light. The bar back steered her from the left wing.
“That’s the crystal bar. Stay clear. As I said, there are ghosts there. Two old women appear from time to time, always wearing the same clothing and never talking to anyone. They’re harmless. Supposedly one of them likes to critique plays.”
Harveen laughed again. “Good to know ghosts have taste.”
“This isn’t a joke. The theatre was built in the Second World War, during the American occupation. A soldier hanged himself. Sometimes people see him. Wearing a—”
She stopped laughing. The soldier ghost stood at the end of the hall.
His smell filled her airways. Crumbling cloth, clay. Her height in heels, unblinking eyes like tar pits over a lofty Roman nose, hair combed back from his forehead in precise coils. An ephebic air. Muted vermillion cascaded from his ears, nose, and mouth onto a length of rope wound around his neck. One hand clutched its frayed end, swinging back and forth.
“You see him? I don’t?” the bar back said, eyes swiveling past the apparition. He shivered. “It’s cold up here.”
The ghost cast no shadow nor reflection in the mirrored walls. Behind him floated Harveen’s own likeness. Flat sheaves of hennaed hair slapping against her ribs, brown face with the indomitably febrile coloring of a matryoshka doll or a cocaine addict. She looked lurid compared to the ghost, conspicuously corporeal. Staring into the depths of his funereal gaze, she thought of the terrain she had seen outside of the city, ragged mountains striped with magma beneath a dark lavender sky.
“I…” Her voice paled. The ghost raised a finger to its lips and signaled at her to leave. Alarmed, she nodded, inhaled and exhaled as though smoking a cigarette. “I don’t see anything either,” she lied. “My eyes must have been playing tricks.”
“You sure?” The bar back examined her with concern. “You said–”
“Could we hurry, please? I’m tired and should get back to my hostel.”
They hastened down the main staircase to the lobby, where she retrieved her coat. Too preoccupied to thank the bar back or say goodbye, she careened outside into the cold.
For a few minutes she wandered, mind aswirl, struggling to process what she had seen in the theatre. Stilettos skewering cobblestones, snow stung her neck and arms, perfused with the odor of sulfur. Moonlight spilled onto slanting streets rimmed with gabled buildings painted primary colors. A susurrus of dialects gusted past, tourists surging from hostels and bars.
She breathlessly recalled the soldier ghost’s eyes that seemed to harbor the secrets of hell. Even though the bar back hadn’t seen him, she knew he was real, that her vision of him had a special purpose, that she couldn’t quite grasp. Her hip faintly throbbed, a warm flitting of cobwebby wings. She blenched, convinced the ghost had followed her and reached into her bones. No, her phone vibrating. She fished it out of her pocket.
“Max.” His face filled the screen. She hastily modulated her voice, smoothed her panicked features. “What’s happening?”
“I should ask you the same thing,” he said. Seated in their apartment kitchen, occidental sunlight cast a frail patina on his skin. “Are you outside? Where’s your jacket?”
“Why’re you calling, honey?” She draped her coat over her shoulders, deflecting him with a bland smile. She had no intention of telling him what had happened in the theatre. Partly because he’d worry, but mostly to maintain ownership over her ghostly encounter, to keep it her secret and hers alone. She greedily sequestered the memory in her bosom, where it simmered.
“I texted you today. Didn’t you get it?”
“I didn’t know I had a quota for talking to my wife,” Max said dryly. “I’m worried about you, Harvy. Something’s up. I feel it.”
“Oh come on, don’t be paranoid. It’s not sexy.”
As always, his intuitiveness unnerved her. They had married a year ago, mere weeks after a blind date arranged by mutual friends. Certainly, he was no more attractive nor magnetic than her other lovers; she wedded him out of sheer lassitude, a feeble attempt to stabilize her oscillating desires.
“I’m fine, baby, really. You’re sweet to worry.”
“You’ve been working nonstop for months. Have you bought your return ticket?”
“I told you. The producers want me to stay another week or two, at least,” she lied, feeling unpleasantly cocooned by his solicitude. “How are you? Did you ask your sister about her mammogram?”
She scanned the streets as he answered. To her right, a nightclub with a roseate façade bedizened with neon lights, from which disco music genially issued. A long queue cordoned with a sateen cable awaited entry. Locals in denim, drag queens armored with stage spackle and plumes.
A slim figure in a brown coat at the front of the line. The soldier ghost.
Her eyes widened. “I have to go.”
Harveen shoved her phone in her bag and ducked beneath the barricade. Maneuvering past irritated patrons, she didn’t stop until she reached him. She took hold of his sleeve.
He turned. A man her age, with longish copper hair, sardonic eyes. She stroked his face, wintry pale skin tinctured with azure. But human, nonetheless. Not the ghost. He gave her a strange look.
“I thought you were someone else,” she said. He shrugged and disappeared inside the nightclub.
“Miss?” A bouncer at the entrance. “Your ID?”
“Oh.” She turned to leave and reconsidered. With everything that had happened that night, she could use a drink. She rummaged through her purse and flashed her passport. “Here.” The bouncer ushered her inside.
Shouldering through the dance floor, she reached the bar and ordered two shots of Aquavit on ice. She downed them, eyes slitting as the liquid seared her throat, and tossed more cash on the counter. Winking, the bartender handed her two more shots in heavy tumblers. Periwinkle lights flashed overhead. The music slowed, grew syncopated, sybaritic. Len, she thought, recognizing the song, allowing the tension in her shoulders to dissipate. “Steal My Sunshine.”
The man from outside sat with a group of locals at a low table. She took him in, his liquid, pellucid features. Reflexively, she flashed a wide grin. “Mind if I sit here?” She eased next to him, wrists curving from the weight of her drinks. “I’m sorry about what happened in line. It’s been a strange night.”
He shrugged again. “What are you drinking?” he asked. She handed him a glass and he took a sip. “That’s too hard for me. I only drink beer.”
Tasting his drink, she likewise grimaced. “I’m Harveen.”
“Hm. That’s also a Muslim name.”
Her purse vibrated. Max again. She turned off her phone, traced Ómar’s hand lightly. “You’re from Reykjavík?” He nodded. His friends spoke to him in Icelandic, eying them like poachers appraising fattened pheasants. One man with a shaved head had his arm around a much older woman with a comely smile. “How long have you been together?” Harveen asked them.
The woman giggled. “We just met.”
The man waved at Ómar. “Kiss him on the cheek,” he ordered. Without hesitating, Harveen skimmed the precise architecture of his face with her lips. The others laughed. “Now the mouth.”
She looked at Ómar. They began to neck, breath deepening in unison. She pushed her fingers into his slippery mass of hair. A propitious urgency she hadn’t known in years, since she was a teenager.
“I don’t do this often,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“It’s all good, honey.”
He tensed. Diffident hands cupped her jaw and slid to her knees. From his scent of cigarettes and leather rose another smell. Dusty skin, powdered bones. She slowly withdrew, rigid and unmoving, as his face paled to grey. Lacerations encircled his neck, those of the soldier ghost, she comprehended, through which she spied the heaped rings of his trachea punctuated with gangrenous shreds of cartilage.
As he transformed before her eyes, the chasm of boredom inside her stirred as it had in the theatre, and then shuddered and narrowed. Startled, her heart constricted.
And then he was smooth and whole once more.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t know what’s happening to me.” She closed her eyes, taken aback by the physical reaction that her vision had provoked. She rested her fingertips on her lids until her chest stilled. Distended, overlapping voices encircled them, to her irritation. “What are your friends saying?” she asked.
“That they can’t believe we were having mouth intercourse,” Ómar said, straightening his collar. “Assholes.”
She unsteadily made her way to the bar, where the man with the shaved head bought her another shot. “Go fuck him,” he said to her, stressing each word.
“Ómar. We think he’s a virgin. We told him, ‘do her now or you’ll never get the chance.’” She stared at him. Somehow, his high-handed, proprietary mien jarred her more than seeing the ghost. “You can use my apartment around the corner. Or we’ll find you a bathroom.”
I can’t do this anymore, she thought. “I have to go,” she said firmly, retreating. “Thank you for the drink.”
She found Ómar smoking a joint near the entrance.
“I wanted to say goodbye.”
“I know what my friend said to you,” he said. “I normally don’t pay him any mind, but I got hard when I kissed you. I figure I should fuck the person who makes me hard.”
“Believe me, I used to think that way, too.”
“When did you stop?”
“This evening.” She took a long pull from his roach, double swatches of smoke obscuring her view. “It’s not enough, honey. It’s never enough.”
Idly, the soldier ghost reappeared in her mind’s eye. She replayed her memory of him, forwards, backwards, every which way, slowly cradling each second.
“I have to see him again,” she thought aloud.
“Who?” She didn’t respond, still mired in her reverie. “At least, let me walk you where you’re going.”
She contemplated him for a moment, nodded. “Can you take me to the National Theatre?”
Nicotine-hued fingers plaited with hers. He led her down a main street, past skeletons of buildings at the waterfront, a concert hall that resembled a roughly hewn diamond teetering over the ocean. Hallgrímskirkja towered in the distance, the church at the marrow of the city.
At last, they turned down a side road and neared the theatre, stolid and uncompromising in the blackened sky. Flanking the extinguished lights, the doors sectioned with spidery dark metal, pregnant with expectancy.
A flash of white in a window. A hand pressed against the glass.
“You can leave me here,” she said to Ómar.
He didn’t protest. “Give me your email address.” She entered it into his phone and kissed him goodbye, knowing that she’d never see him again.
When he skirted the street corner, she tentatively mounted the steps of the theatre, betwixt pillars plastered with posters of dance troupes and Ibsen plays. She paused at the entrance.
The front doors were unlatched.
Harveen closed her hand around the chilled door handle and carefully drew the door open.
The lobby was lathered in candlelight. Figures in formal dress thronged, the air tumid with mirth and mingling. Patrician men, women in tiered skirts and furred capes. As her eyes adjusted to the lambency, the people came into focus. They were all corpses, their fine clothing dappled with holes that revealed frayed skin. Rotting innards and starveling limbs.
She was the only living person in the theatre.
Within the crowd, she saw the two ghost women the bar back had mentioned. Garbed in beaded gowns and parrot-bright stockings that were too outré amidst ghoulish wraiths, withered hair frothing. The others ignored them. They all moved with cephalopod fluidity, raising imaginary cigarettes to mice-eaten lips. For them, another long night in the hall of the dead.
And then they saw her.
A gelid wind and the soldier ghost stood before her. Whispers of words rasped from the gashes in his neck, his face in shadow. Harveen nodded and he bowed, extending his arm. Suddenly alert, the hordes of corpses materialized at his back. Likewise beckoning and swaying. Their eyes seethed, for they clearly regarded her as an interloper. Beneath their vexation, she sensed something deeper, a jagged eagerness, in which lurked the true reason why the soldier ghost had summoned her to the theatre.
The void within her contracted further.
She reached out and clasped his hand.
Pain coursed through her fingers. He gripped her with behemoth strength, flyblown skin rasping against hers. She cried out, more surprised than frightened. The theatregoers hemmed in closer, toothless mouths agog in mirthless glee. Spindling fingers curved into claws. They wished to tear her apart.
This isn’t a joke, she thought, remembering the bar back’s words.
Slowly, by and by, the soldier ghost pulled her into the doorway. He yanked her close, eyes brimming with ferity, pools of shallow animal instinct and appetite. He ran an ashen tongue along battered teeth, champing at the tang of her fleshly scent as he lunged at her neck. Her chasm nearly sealed, now, inching shut with stunning swiftness. And, finally, terror. For she realized that her emptiness housed her will to live. A constant hunger that, while maddening, propelled her forward each day and cemented her in the meat of her being.
“I don’t want to die!”
With all her strength, Harveen wrenched herself free. She tumbled against a pillar, panting.
A reproachful look from the soldier ghost. Laughter reverberated through the theatre.
One last cackle and the door clanged shut.
For a moment she stood, motionless. Gathering her skirts, she fled into the streets.
He appears out of the fog swaddled around my tiny house. I am waiting at the door, one eye pressed to the peek hole. His pace is quick and confident. He is younger than I expected, perhaps even younger than me. I step back into the foyer when he reaches the stoop. I take a deep breath.
He breezes through the door and shuts it behind himself. “You should really lock that,” he says, pushing back his hood. He is enormous standing in this space, his head small, protruding from a black boxy raincoat. Strange, like the head of a turtle.
I look down at my hands, folded in front of me. “I used to,” I say. “I forgot.” I shrug and spread my arms. “Can I get you anything?”
“Sure, I guess.” He stomps his shoes and chunks of wet earth loosen and dislodge from the thick soles, scattering over the floor. “Beer,” he says. “Or wine, if you prefer.”
I turn myself sideways to let him pass into kitchen and breathe in as he goes by. He smells of spices and moss. He shrugs off his coat and drops it on the floor. I pick it up and follow him into the kitchen, drape it over the back of a chair and smooth the damp fabric.
“Nice place,” he says, looking around, hands on his hips. The room is cramped. There is barely enough room for the table and two chairs. but a large window over the sink lets in the diffused light. A screen door leads to the back yard where the first tender blades of grass are starting to break through.
Without the coat, his proportions are correct, his stature relaxed but still imposing. I see that he is in fact young, He looks like the kind of person who whistles, someone from a movie in black and white, except he is in socks, one toe worn and transparent. I fetch a beer from the fridge and open it. The crisp hiss hangs between us like something losing air.
“You’re beautiful,” I say.
“Yes,” he says. He takes the beer, turns it in his hand, scanning the label, then takes a few quick sips. I’m close enough to hear the sound of him swallowing. See the blonde stubble catching light on his cheek.
I pull out a chair for him, and he sits down.
“So, what do you do?” I ask.
“Really?” he laughs. I try to think of another question, something surprising that will make me stand out. I search the floor. The linoleum disgusts me, its repeating diamond pattern in varied hues of green is too lighthearted. Domestic, mocking.
“Do you like soup?”
He rubs his knee and takes another swig. I study his movements, try to discern if I’ve pleased him. “Yes, I do. I fact, I hope to learn how to make it myself,” he says, settling back and smirking.
“Oh that’s marvelous,” I say. “What kind?”
“French onion, I think. I like the taste of meat. But not the texture.” He takes another glug. “Aren’t you going to have one? It’s nicer not to drink alone. You could probably use one.”
I finger my hair a bit, and search for my reflection in the grimy glass. A squirrel sits in the window box nibbling at the Italian parsley. The fog is thinning, and I think can see the red paint of the house next door.
“I don’t really drink.”
“You have beer.”
“Ah, come on, it doesn’t really matter now, does it?” His feet are on the table.
“Maybe some water.”
At the sink, I fill a glass and peer into the fog. Yes, I can see the neighbor’s house, the outline of the white windowpane. I could call out; if I opened the window, they might hear me. I close the tap and return to the table.
“You wouldn’t have any cheese, would you?” he asks.
“No, I’m sorry,” I say, and I find that I am. I have always tried to be hospitable.
“Fine. What’s your name, by the way?” he asks.
I wonder for a moment if I should tell him. “Mallory.” I like saying my name. Like a tongue around marble, smooth and small and cold.
“Huh,” he says. “Haven’t had a Mallory yet.” I’m not surprised. I like to think it’s an unusual name, now.
“You can call me Danny.”
“Danny,” I repeat with forced levity. It’s not too bad. He used to be a child. He likes soup. “Is that really your name?”
“Oh. Would you like to move into the lounge?” I ask. I take a dainty sip of my water, forming my lips into an O so as not to leave a distasteful mark on the rim.
“Actually, do you have any knives?” he says.
“Oh. Yes.” I lead him to the cutlery drawer, which is cluttered with things like can openers and rubber bands, a few stray chop sticks. A red pen that’s bled out in a puddle of sticky ink. I point to the knives.
“No something heavier, like a cleaver or a carving knife,” he says, pawing through the drawer.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, no of course not, I—”
“Razor? Puntilla? Bread knife?”
“Well, no, I—”
“Santo—sorry, I don’t know what that is.” I step back and watch him overturning the small bins that hold the forks and spoons.
“Japanese. You know, something to cut meat with.”
“I don’t eat meat, actually.”
“You must have a paring knife then. How do you cut up vegetables?” He looks around the room like he’s just realized he’s lost something.
“I mostly order out,” I say, embarrassed.
“Fine, it’s a butter knife then.” He holds it at his side. “Let’s go.” He gestures for me to lead the way. In the doorway, he places a hand on my shoulder, and I freeze. “I don’t suppose you have a hammer?” he asks.
I do have a hammer. I have many tools right there in the closet, just a meter away. I pretend to think. “A hammer?” I bring a finger to my lips and furrow my brow. “No, I don’t think so. I’ve borrowed the neighbor’s before, I think.” How can he be so unprepared?
“Fine,” he says, but I sense he wants to say more. Then he moves his hand to my neck and strokes the skin there with a finger. His palm is clammy and the fingertip a little bit hard, like a butt of bread. But still, it has its effect. I close my eyes to better absorb the sensation. “It’s so soft,” he says to himself. I lean against the wall, his breath on my neck melts me into it.
I am jolted upright by the coldness of the butter knife against my neck. He presses it hard into the soft spot under my jawbone where the skin has begun to sag and drags the blade a little. I turn to see his face studying the effect, biting his lip in concentration.
Danny sighs and pulls the blade away. He runs the serrated edge against the pad of his finger. “Are you sure you don’t have a hammer?” he asks again.
“Okay.” I lead him into the lounge and turn the lights to the dimmest setting. He sits in the center of the couch, large and plush, dark brown with green pillows. My Swedish ivy spills from the bookshelf. The air is humid and slightly stifling. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“Sit.” He pats the spot next to him. I sit down, and he drapes an arm around me. The scent of him here is different, sweet, like an already decaying thing. He sets the butter knife on the coffee table in front of us. His fingers curl around my upper arm and he pulls me close.
“Want to watch a movie first?” I ask him.
“Would you like to know about me?” I ask.
“If you want.” Everything here in the room suddenly feels very dear to me; it is filled with what I love. My eyes run over the cracked, colored spines of my many books, searching. With effort, I push myself up and take one from the shelf. It’s a slim volume of poetry. I open it, flip through, looking for a specific dogeared poem.
“Just a sec,” I tell him, and replace the volume. “It’s here, I’ll find it.” He tears at a hangnail with his teeth, both feet up on the cushions.
I pick another volume and carry it to the couch where I sit facing him, flipping through the pages that I hold close to my face. “It’s a poem. About two empty glasses. It’s so beautiful. You’ll see.”
“I don’t really understand poetry.”
I know he’s lying but close the book and look for the first time into his eyes. A swirl of blue and green in brown, the lashes heavy on upper and lower lids. His lips are thin but reddish, and there’s a spray of tiny raised bumps on one cheek.
“Rosacea,” he says covering it with his hand.
He takes the book from my hand and places it next to the butter knife.
“Before we go any further,” he says, “I need to ask some questions.”
“Yes?” I ask and find I can barely breathe. “Wait.” I put my hand up. “Danny.” Saying his name feels ridiculous. “Can you hold me? Just for a little while. Perhaps we can lay down here on the couch. Just five minutes.”
He isn’t bothered by the request and lies down, his back against the cushions. I lie down as well, and he is warm. He lets me rest my head on the soft part of his arm and smoothes the hair away from my face. He runs a fingertip along the rim of my ear, then his hands are on my body, petting me in long slow strokes like mine is the body of a dog. I seem to be sinking down into the couch, down beneath some heavy weight, and it’s dark, even when I open my eyes. I cannot locate my limbs. This does not disturb me.
I awake disoriented with the feeling of being roused many times over and over but never fully waking. My body is a foreigner’s, the feel of my skin like soil that’s been tilled, fresh but disturbed. There is humming coming from the kitchen.
“Hello?” I call, and the humming stops. I wait for him to appear, but no one comes, so I stand, falter, steady myself on the arm of the couch.
He is there in the kitchen, standing over the stove. Steam rises from the pot, a pot my mother gave me when I moved into this house years and years ago. His raincoat is still draped over the chair, but he has changed clothes. His feet are bare and make little suction noises as he crosses the room to take my hand. “What are you making?”
“Come,” he says, leading me. “Come and see.” I approach the stove. The smell is strong, wintery and musky. Through the steam I see a thin brown broth bubbling. He smiles proudly. “French onion,” he says. “But we don’t have any bread.”
I tell him that’s okay and sit down at the table. He brings me a glass of water then squats down in front of me, taking my hand.
“Mallory,” he says.
“Yes.” I’m so very tired.
“Are you ready?”
“What did you chop the onions with?”
He smiles and pulls a small paring knife from the back pocket of his jeans. “You were withholding, you minx. But it’s all you have, I’m afraid. It’s small but sharp. Better than the butter knife.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” I think about the fact of my body, the shit and the piss, the blood, the mess.
“You don’t have a better knife. Or a hammer. It would have been better,” he says and wipes away what must be a tear.
“I know,” I say. “It’s just… do you think we could do it in the backyard?”
He says that’s all right, and I go to stand, to follow him out, but my legs have stopped working, I feel a thousand years old and need him to carry me. He can see this without my asking, and though it isn’t easy for him, he manages, one arm under my knees, one under my back, his hand gripping my rib cage so as not to drop me as he carries me into our backyard and lays me in the grass.
“Ready?” he asks again. I turn to face the window for one last look into my home, but it is obscured by the steam of the soup. I breathe in the dark scent of the soil. The daffodils are just beginning to bloom, and I try to reach out to pick one but it’s too far away. And as it begins, sharp and difficult, my mouth falls open, slack and silent as an empty bell. At least I am home, I think through the pain. At least I will always be home.
The Monster on the Green
One night a towering monster with eyes of coal and claws of jet black rock and skin like the stony ground itself stumbles into a village. The people panic, scream, flee into the hills. Some of the younger men fetch pikes and sticks and surround him. Some of the older ones expire as their hearts give out. Children cry plaintively.
The monster could very easily kill them all. Crush the houses and uproot the trees. Pick his teeth with the spire of the church the villagers labored for ten years to build.
But he doesn’t.
He is a tired monster. He’s lived a thousand years and eaten ten thousand squealing humans in that time. He’s erased more villages than he can count or remember. The screaming no longer excites him. The destruction no longer fills his heart with fire. He wants something else. Something other.
And so he picks his way to the center of the village and settles there on the green. For a while there is commotion all around him. Men bearing pathetic weapons encircle him: bread knives and walking sticks and masonry hammers. Their eyes and hearts and bodies quiver with terror. With a single sweep of his hand the monster could turn them all into bloody smears on the grass.
But he doesn’t.
Instead he sits there, quite immobile, and waits. Days, then weeks. Slowly, the panic quietens. Villagers return from the woods into which they fled. They bury the dead. They light fires around the green and watch him warily. They chatter.
The younger men, he can tell, would like to smear him with pitch and shoot him with burning arrows. The older men would like to pack up and abandon the village altogether. In the end, a middle road prevails. Months after he first arrives in the village, the villagers start to bring him offerings.
Tiny garlands of tiny flowers. Huge meals that wouldn’t sate him for a second, even if he were to eat them. Scrappy little collections of gold and silver. They pile their worthless gifts around him like an enchanted circle, as though that will somehow protect them. He sits as still as a statue and watches them. He considers, again, killing each and every one of them.
But he doesn’t.
Slowly, slowly, the panic recedes. Six months pass and he doesn’t move an inch. The villagers come to regard him as benign. A few still eye him warily, but the rest forget their fear and panic. The weekly market begins again, the pens and stalls erected in a circle around him. People decorate him with flowers and cut grasses. On summer days they sit in his shadow.
The monster watches them. The comings and goings of their daily lives. The baker’s apprentice starts courting the dressmaker, and they visit the monster and touch his toes for luck. A year later they have their wedding on the green, and drunken guests lounge against the monster’s stony skin. The baker’s apprentice (now the baker) credits the monster with the flourishing of their love in his speech. The monster, he says, is a miracle. A blessing on the village.
And so it seems to be. After that visitors start coming to marvel at the monster. A few at first, and then many more. The village swells to accommodate them. There are new inns, new taverns, new houses. The shops around the green thrive. Offerings pile up around the monster in a glittering barrow. A sign is erected, explaining his miraculous nature.
Years pass, and the monster does not move. It is different from his previous existence. No death. No destruction. No bloodtaste in his mouth. No screams in his ears. Just peaceful years passing by one after the other after the other. The monster considers this existence no better and no worse than his previous life. He does not care for the villagers. Humans are so small and so insignificant they are of no interest at all to him. This life is not better or worse. It simply is.
He could, he supposes, stay and be their miracle forever. He could let them prosper. He could keep them. Watch over them. While away his years like this, in peace and harmony and quiet.
But he doesn’t.
Charles Is Back
It is among the most hopeless of clichés, yet not without its certain bleak pointedness, to speak of time in a bar as having, in some way, stalled – the people in it, stalled – shivering frozen, pickled really, in the terrifying silence of frightening drinking. They drink with their mouths open. What they talk about is nothing. The place itself is nowhere: the closed door out onto the street; the fire door in the back propped open to the alleyway. Broken stools out there. Sunlight, grass, the smell of jasmine. Nothing happens here, not to these people, yet minutely, meaninglessly, they change. A woman comes into the bar one afternoon, her jasmine perfume, and becomes after a few weeks as a spectator the barman’s girl. Now she, too, is in it. Desolate with love, she and the others, one or two of whom, making a beggared advance, will all but throw himself at her, only to be kicked out by the chivalric bartender, so that what will pass between bartender and drunk is that hesitant look of blame, a melancholy, a resignation. Regulars disappear. Sick, they’ve heard. Ask Tom all about it. Even bartenders themselves will vanish in a restructuring of shiftwork, or off for a spell at one of the higher-class establishments where the customers tip money, where tulip glasses are used and not hung by their elegant stems in the overhead wood-slats, machines to catch smoke as though for cupping therapy; they reappear, or someone else does, and the response of the waiting crowd is as if a native son has returned. Charles is back! Where ya been, sport? They are grateful only for something to talk about. Charles has a tan, a burnt face and white above the knees, from scaling hulls six weeks in a shipping yard in Tampa. Pour us another round, sport. That is, if you still know how! In this way, the outside world, its adjuvants – everyday care, catchment moves, a bus ride; relationships built not on space but hunger; or a front door letterbox so full and flooding it could block an entrance hall like an upturned runner – are treated here as the equals of sobriety in unlit neighborhoods and far-flung places, which perhaps do operate, after all, under a different means, a different pressure of time, where surprisingly hearty molecules in the gray charm of the atmosphere collide with one another at enduring rates to build up revolution and real change; for it is simply impossible, far beyond the nature of thinking, to imagine dearest Charles should have merely laid stoned in a roadside motel, his mislaid passions around him, these absent months and hours. That tan! That new jacket! No one detail is frivolous enough to be completely lost, and the very dimness of this place, which hides freckles, moles, and laddered stockings, water stains, bad teeth, is more like the relief of an ancient movie house, each item observed a piece of laced silver in the brilliant screen four hundred feet high. A letter carrier, his hair striped with foam: The post office, man, says an idiot next to him trying to convince him to take an electric bill the rest of the way. They should have a transporter, like what’s-that-show. You put it in there, it disappears. He holds out an envelope balanced on two fingers. In the corner by a jukebox, two men in crew cuts, khaki shirts, fatigues, eloquently discuss the best piss they ever took. Could there really be such a thing? They are sitting very straight on two hard chairs, a thick frosted glass on the table between them, and a white tea candle, unlit, within it. Between the military obviousness of their dress and the general disinterest of the bar’s other patrons in this place with a picture wall of mourned dead and the predilection of its regulars to attend airshows or profess a harebrained conviction that the best part of any ballgame is a Blue Angels flyover, it appears they have been here all day. One of the men: Dan. Steve, perhaps. His name is Alex. He was shy for days in basic training. He pissed days, years. Pissed his heart away, his life. Suddenly, the front door opens. A rectangle of light is cast back into the bar, framing the new customer and keeping him in silhouette. A backpacker in outrageously heavy winter gear, he has less a face than the suggestion of one, with willowy knots of hair above his welder’s goggles and the soft mold of tape bandages obscuring ears, his cheeks, the chapped-lip mouth in a grimace no doubt. Some living paradox, a contradiction of genre, sea-grass tangles and the red dust of a desert cling as much to his boots as limp, dripping icicles. The bar’s patrons turn around to look at him. Charles himself! Or is it Ken? He unlocks his feet from skis, throws his nose into an umbrella stand. In the unexpected start of the stranger’s movements, tripping briefly on a rubber entrance mat that had upturned itself in the day’s slow traffic, a slice of exposed skin between the cuffs of his gloves and the stretch of his overcoat reveals not skin at all but a blank space, significant air. A shiver of menace could break through the place, yet in the half-silvered hollow where his nose should be, they see, perhaps, themselves. With each item of clothing removed, another shot gets lined up on the bar. People knock their glasses together, they pool change for tips or another song on the jukebox. Even the letter carrier in the back has given up his indifference for the man with the electric bill. It is the hour of charity now, the stranger in the doorway, still, as he lifts his goggles up and pulls the wet mask of his face down.
A blue-grey tomb of a mountainside, with a dozen or so buildings as a lichenous stretch across its top – that was their little world, the monastery. Perched in the cloister walk, two monks sat deciding what Heaven looked like. “If we,” Brother Pachomius was saying, in his high drawl, thinking the words at the same debilitating pace at which he spoke them – “Yes, if we are made in the image of the shadow of God, we may still guess at his form because of our own.”
Brother Anthony, his companion, square, short, with a craggy nose and cloudy but stern and matt black eyes, sat very still and did not reply. He was used to his Brother’s rhetoric.
“Surely, then, surely, our cloisters must be shadowy images of heaven’s. We are imitations making imitations.” Heaven, then, Pachomius was sure, was a monastery.
Anthony drank some beer, savoured the taste, and thought about his friend’s argument. “Different to this, though, I think. There would be differences.”
“Yes. It would be perfect.”
Slowly, Pachomius managed, “I’m not sure.”
“There’s no sin in imagining. You must have imagined heaven, Brother. When alone, and tired of this. Sometimes you wonder.” Here he glanced upwards and clenched his jaw. “As I say: there is no sin in it.”
“Quite right, Anthony. Quite right. No sin at all… It is a way of bringing one closer to God. One may know a man by his house, after all, mightn’t he?”
The sound of rain gently beating at the stone walls of the Brothers’ own house gave them answer, along with the wind, which had picked up, and was sounding a shrill hiss through the halls. They both noticed it. One never got used to the wind – it grated on them all, there, on the mountain, and made them grind their teeth.
“So what does it look like?” Anthony muttered.
“Well,” began Pachomius. He considered. “Bigger.” He seemed displeased with how this had come out and shrank back from his Brother.
“Oh. Yes, of course. Yes. Bigger. I mean to say, grander. For it would have to accommodate so many.”
“And yet it would never be full.”
And so they talked for a little while more of the architecture of Paradise, of its materials, and plan, of the thickness of its walls, the design of the forge, of the church; but they were soon called to Sext by the bells.
The two Brothers were in the garden, on their knees, plucking and pulling at weeds, tending to the vegetables, the dirt worked into the grooves of their hands and their nails completely black. It was a foul, unwieldly day that stank with the smell of thunder, and made green things blue. They had both thought on the subject of heaven, and quickly fell to talking about perfection. In this life, as Pachomius put it, without quite achieving eloquence, “Even if we strive to walk upwards, always along the best and true road, even if we do not stumble once, we still muddy our boots.”
Brother Anthony was not happy with this, and sought to express the thought himself: “Heaven’s perfection is divine perfection. It is unachievable for man and outside of heaven, by its nature. We aim to be perfect, but only as we can be.”
“Exactly, yes. The perfection of God awaits us; we know it by sight and not by touch, it is the image we seek to carve of our own perfection. Although, Brother, remember Jesus’s Amen – ‘be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect’.”
Matthew 5:48. “That, Brother, is why we remove ourselves from the rest of men, so we may better try.”
“The perfection we reach is a perfection unknowable to them.” Here he gestured with a soiled hand to the valley below, unseen from their height, for a thick, grey shield of cloud and mist cut off the peak of the mountain.
Anthony nodded. “They have no time to contemplate.”
They both meant more than was said, but neither was able to fully convey his thoughts about that place. They turned from it. Anthony wondered what the perfect, earthly monastery would look like, and they discussed it, working around the difficulties intrinsic in mortal things, attempting to refine their home and make it pure. But soon the rain from higher clouds grew so intense they could barely see. They went inside, quickly, while the mud was washed in rivulets to lower slopes.
In his dorter, Pachomius found that the room had its problems: bricks had chipped and black mould was accumulating slightly; the window was not quite sealed, so that the horrid wind was in the room, disturbing him like distant voices in the dark. Things closed in on him, and he did not sleep before Lauds. In the morning he asked for mortar.
Anthony saw faults even as he left the garden, but he was, on the whole, undisturbed by them. Even so, their conversation stayed with him, and he lay awake for a while, with a mounting want and expectation that something should happen.
Pachomius fixed his window, and started to informally repair the monastery at large. He eventually asked if he may devote some of his working hours towards a comprehensive system of upkeep: a request which was granted.
The season wilted and the rains came finally in earnest. Brother Pachomius worked on his repairs as if it was his nature: he retiled roofs and talked to himself. He had no idea of the perfect monastery outside of fixing the one he already knew, and had not considered the possibility that his home did not offer the chance of an ideal, even if ideal itself; he simply found faults, and eliminated them. Conversely, Anthony knew less and less of their home. He strove to contemplate perfection in its variety of constructions, and committed himself to creating something free from the interference of others. He built a monastery in his mind that grew in sharpness and clarity, and, after a while, in truthfulness. Very little at all disturbed him; when he did pull himself to the present moment and look about, at prayer, or at their meals, he saw the edges of things glittering into pieces. And this vagueness and sense of unreality steered him to the solidity of his creation, to the comfort of its laws – and thin lines crept into his face.
On completion of his project, he fell into a fever. He was found, quivering and unresponsive on the floor of his cell, flecks of spit at the edge of his mouth, his eyes bloodshot and open. The Brothers moved him to the infirmary, fed him soup, gave him medicine and eventually let him rest. In this obscene, hot sleep, he raved and was not himself.
Brother Pachomius went to see him, lain up in bed, to give him God’s blessing and wish him well – a task which he had found difficult, not least because it separated him from his labour, which he now saw as intrinsic to his prayer; he wished to follow Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”. He worked until exhausted, and all the while he would pray “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner”.
Anthony had done nothing to acknowledge his visitor except widen his eyes, which were horrible to look at: they bore little resemblance to eyes with a soul behind them, and were purple. He was still feverous: pale, vein-ridden and sweaty. But more upsetting to Pachomius, more disgusting by far, was the obvious impression that despite his condition, Anthony recognised him, and, if only he had strength to look, he would see in those mad, apparently void eyes, recognition and understanding.
Anthony grabbed his arm, weakly, but with such purpose that Pachomius knew he would not move until it was released. His Brother stared at him, harshly, freaked, and said, with a rasping voice, “Us!” He tightened his grip, and a look of unmitigated violence showed, suddenly, in all the features of his face.
It was some weeks until Anthony recovered. He remembered that desperate “us”, but, at first, he could make little of it. This was not the case for Pachomius, who had been greatly affected by their meeting.
Even when there was sun, on those short winter days, it was cold in the monastery – the wind felt like it was stripping everything down to its base. Water sat in pools, spotted over the land and in courtyards refusing to dry: some of the Brothers glimpsed their reflections and smiled pityingly at their weathered faces, so different to how they remembered them.
Anthony was tending to the mill and grain. His sturdy, ruddy face was quite still, fixed absently in an expression that, had it been conscious, would have been called a sneer. He bit at a parsnip. The Brothers were causing him a problem. He was struggling to find a place for them – and for himself – in his perfect creation, struggling to imagine someone worthy enough to walk in his garden, to imagine footsteps in his hallways, so well-laid to take them, and to picture grime building up on the sills.
The bells rang several times, and the long night came.
Pachomius could not sleep; he had not been able to sleep for some time. He was gaunt, and his gangly, hawk-like body made his weight loss appear vile. He had been worrying over the Brothers, and worrying over his work, and so wandered the courtyard rather than stay in his cell. It was a clear, bright night, singularly coloured: everything was blue; and the light was flat, so the shadows and the patches of uninterrupted moonlight were gradations, barely variants, of the same, full, dark blue. It looked like he was drowned, except that the moon was in the sky, ugly and implausibly white. He found that he hated it, and looked instead at the columns of the cloister, some of which he had repaired recently. It pleased him to look at his work. The wind clawed through the courtyard – it swiped at his thoughts and cast them off like dead leaves. It blew him out into the cloister, lifted him above his dire, obsessive self, and floated him down the halls; he walked like a follower, hollowly and confidently, for his path was known to him. He stopped by the door of Brother Benedict. He went in and saw him asleep. The room, Pachomius noticed, was very well kept, and this, for some reason, filled him with joy and a sense of the correctness of everything he did. Quietly, he took off his cowl and neatly folded it several times into a rectangle. He went to the bed and placed it over Benedict’s head very firmly. His brother woke with an incredible, vicious panic, lashing out, desperate and struggling – he screamed into the coarse cloth. Pachomius did not look down, but kept his gaze on the wall in front of him, trying to make out the bricks, and saying over and over “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.”
The Brothers were no fools, and believed that Benedict had been murdered. They banded together as much as they could, while the abbot told them to be wary and watchful, and sought to establish what had happened.
During this time Anthony withdrew increasingly into himself. The more he was in company, the less he felt part of it. The outside world appeared far away, and none of his business, and so he explored the workings of what could be known to him: his thoughts and actions, and the ideals he had created. He saw the image of what it was to be perfect clearly, and set against it his own faults were dreadfully apparent.
When walking alone to go to get more tools for the roof of the barn Pachomius passed Brother Sabbas who had fallen asleep by the sheep-pen, idle. Without thinking much why he did it, he put his hand over his mouth and his hands round his throat – Sabbas woke, astonished, and bruised and cut his attacker. Pachomius hardly moved. Bright pink marks were left on the corpse’s neck, and by the time it was found they had changed into shiny blacknesses. Some Brothers were sent to fetch villagers from the valley, to pay them if necessary, for protection and assistance.
Pachomius had renounced himself, given up to something larger, and more persuasive – a powerful numbing feeling of concern for all creatures, which gave him peace. The next day he killed Brother Gregory, who did not struggle at all.
And so, by order, everyone spent their time together, which they were not used to. It began to drive them slightly mad. There was no word from the village.
A storm broke over the height of the mountain, making the sky dark and thick and unfriendly. It rained harsh rain and rained constantly, like a deluge. The Brothers were always wet, and many slipped on the flagstones as they went to the refectory, breaking their bones and scraping the skin off their knees.
In the dim afternoon, Brother Pachomius appeared in the oratory porch, silhouetted, black-brown against grey, framed by the doors, rain confusing the landscape behind him. He had come from the barn and was soaked through. He held a hammer. The several monks in the church went silent and stood still when they saw him in the doorway, an apparition of menace, and they were afraid. He came in, and with bright, meaningless eyes he looked at his Brothers: his quick steps echoed around the building.
He reached Brother Francis. Nobody had moved. The hammer was raised, Pachomius’s arm was straightened and stiff, his smile wide, his face in highlight and full of shadows. In the moment before he cracked into his Brother’s skull, bells started to chime. It was the wrong time for them, and they were badly wrung, weak, dissonant, sporadic, but the noise roused the Bothers from their horror. The hammer broke into Luke’s brain, separating and discarding fragments of bone, splintering them into his skin; he collapsed, blood dashing in small drops on the cold, smooth floor. The monks approached Pachomius, but he swung at them and shoved them off painfully; he almost growled. He brought the bloodied hammer down on the corpse, and smashed it into Luke’s head, flattening a cheek bone and rendering the face unrecognisable – blood wept across what features were left, and over the yellow-white protrusions of teeth and bone. He was tackled to the ground and his weapon stolen. They bound his hands together before hoisting him to his feet, shouting, louder than he had ever known them.
He still fought; he could not rid himself of the feeling that they were disastrous, an affront to all that was graceful and of sense. They forced him outside into the rain, into the grey hatred of the mountain weather – the bells could still be heard, just, buried in the wind. An unexpected group was gathered outside the church: the people from the village, arrived at last, led by a few of the Brothers. But they did not look at Pachomius or his captors, they did not notice this absurd prisoner with a wild face and stained hands; they looked instead at the bell-tower.
With a halo of lighter clouds behind it, the tower was an incredible object, stark and amazingly defined. Not quite half-way down, dangling from the bell’s rope, and swaying in the wind, was Brother Anthony, who had hanged himself. The swinging of his body’s bulk, its scraping over the stones of the church, caused the gentle movement of the bells, and directed their otherworldly, off-sounding song.
The Bothers were unable to take in the full tragedy of the sight; their faces betrayed the blankness of their grief. They gripped Pachomius tighter. He alone was truly moved by the sight of his friend, dripping and broken: he cried in wilful, rapturous joy – he, alone, found sanctity and love in this black terror. The Brothers dragged him to the crowd, while he squirmed and smiled and shouted; his Brother had raised himself to a state beyond this doggedly imperfect place, and was set apart, untouchable by wear and ruin: he had split apart from his faults and now gazed infinitely, outside the storm, on true perfection – he saw heaven, God’s work, unimprovable, he walked in the garden of that sublime place, part of it. As the crowd took him and led him down the mountain, beating and spitting at him, Pachomius continued to weep, though the wind and the rain blasted the tears from his eyes. He was unaware of the little life going on about him, unaware of the sharp descent, for he knew that soon, like his Brother, he would join God’s kingdom, and those who were perfect.
I loved him, up until that third bourbon. He was such a fucking amazing person but jesus he was a mean drunk.
He texted: Just had my third bourbon. Mona cornered me before I left the house.
Mona is his wife.
Mona wants to give it another try, he texted.
If you love a person you shouldn’t love, it can be tricky to know what to say.
Oh. Well. How do you feel about that?
There is no love. Doesn’t that matter? he wrote.
Mona still loves you. Apparently.
Mona wants my dollar bills. My plastic. It sure would be nice to see you.
Aren’t you at the airport? Cleveland is waiting.
Fuck fucking Cleveland, he texts.
My apartment is up in the sky, overlooking our city from a safe distance. A doorman building, because a doorman is handy, if you need to know about oncoming police action. And I do. I adore my doorman, he is four-and-a-half feet tall and almost as wide, his name is Jethro and he is passionately devoted to the notion that I should be able to do my business unmolested.
He believes I provide a service. And I do.
And Jethro loves my special Christmas tips.
I don’t know how long it was before three shots of bourbon knocked on the door. Thirty-four minutes, maybe? His fingers were wrapped tight around the neck of a bottle. This is Pappy’s, he said, striding right in with it held up before him, taking a swig, then slamming it with way too much force on my new glass-topped dining table. I rushed over to check if it had chipped.
Then I shoved him, hard.
Is that your idea of hello?
Yes, a very nice hello! It happens to be the finest bottled drink in these United States. The bottles are numbered. He stabbed a finger toward the label. See? Number.
I just feel so bad about Charles and Eduardo and Bob and Keith and Andre, I said.
These were his children. Ages 1, 3, 5, 6, 8. In reverse order.
I could say the same about your lovely wife, he said now. You are about to screw Marylea over royally. Again.
That’s not a very nice thing to say.
Marylea is my wife.
I wanted a baby. I thought about it all the time. And nowadays I wondered if maybe I get could get myself pregnant with him, via fucking, and not with Marylea, via outpatient office visit at the sperm bank.
Anyhow, those boys will be taken care of, he said. I want out. And you. You changed your hair.
I wanted it darker.
He eyed me. I think it’s trending you toward haggard.
Nice, I said. Why are you here?
I just want a little love in my life. Is that so bad?
And even then, after that haggard remark and the crack about Marylea, my heart ran toward him like water downhill. Let me make you a Lean Cuisine, I said.
You should EAT a Lean Cuisine, he said.
I took this as a note about how I had gained weight, some, in the months since we’d met. He was a one-time customer. As in, he came to me one time, to score molly.
I actually sold him ecstasy. Back then I stocked e and molly both, because I wanted to offer options. Nowadays, it’s molly or nothing. It’s more pure. I need to feel pride in my product.
So he came here for the e that first time, and instead of just keeping him in the hall, like I do with new customers, I opened my door to him. It was his face, I guess. I liked it. I let him stand in my living room while I fetched his purchase from the inventory in the master bath.
The whole time I was thinking how bad would it be if I asked this guy on a date?
I didn’t know I was going to fall in love. If only I had known. But to have known that, I would have needed a time machine, and if I’d had a time machine, I wouldn’t be dealing molly, would I? I’d be at a dinner party with Shakespeare.
In this day and age, a woman should be allowed to gain weight without it being a federal crime, though, for fuck’s sake.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a mean drunk, I said to him, watching him swig that bottle again.
Oh, I’m just joshing, sweets, he said. You know I think you’re fine.
I shoved him again. You want chicken parmesan or beef lasagna?
Beef me up baby, he said. And how about a glass and two to three large ice cubes.
And then the next morning. My apartment is so high, it’s close to the sun. The first light of day shoots in like a laser, this time of year. Marylea begs for drapes. At least put in some fucking blinds, she says, because I’m fucking blinded every morning!
But on this bright morning she was ok with our bare windows because she was in California, touring with Drake. She’s one of the girls who dance and she’s also known for twirling her red hair. Except this tour Drake was making all the girls wear hats.
I tapped him on his snuffling, messy head. I am ripe for adventure, I said.
Let’s do it, he mumbled, then lapsed into snores again.
I checked my period tracker on my phone. Last night, it says, was a potentially fruitful moment. And he’d come at least one and a half times, and I hadn’t bothered to tell him I’d been off the pill for a while, so I had cause for optimism. I opened my closet and looked in the full-length mirror at my belly. Then I looked at it in profile. It was protruding but well so what else is new.
Down on the lakefront there’s a restaurant with an outdoor bar I like, especially in winter when it is encased in clear vinyl and they pump hot air from toasty space heaters. I’m a sucker for the views of wind-whipped water through dirty plastic windows, and the greasy nibbles and the martinis filthy with olive juice. Marylea and I like to sit there, on a half a capsule each, and just pass the afternoon, day drinking and mildly e-puddled.
I decided I want to try this with him, for comparison’s sake.
My favorite bartender, Keegan, was there, all pale skin and blonde in her white button-down and black smock apron – who could resist her? I certainly wasn’t going to introduce her to him, so I just kept it businesslike, ordering the martinis and those rubbery fried mozzarella sticks that make you feel like you’re eating someone’s warm crumb-covered lips.
We drank the halved pills down with a can of Clamato. The first bit sucks. Five minutes in, your lower jaw feels like it’s being cranked up into your skull with a tire jack. A background playlist of say, Adele, sounds like monkey sounds, screeching.
After a little while that horrible g-force feeling leaves you, though, and everything is grand. I heard him order another round of martinis from Keegan, but I waved her back. Make that two screwdrivers instead, I said. Lots of ice.
He laughed long and hard. Screw drivers! That’s fucked up. His voice got very high when he said “up.” He smiled and shook his head in wonder.
The bar began to fill. Outside the wind swept ice chunks onto the beach.
Hey, he said, can you turn off this fucking Adele and put on something tight.
Keegan grinned and nodded. She looked a little hypnotized by him, his gold watch flashing. Something deep and bass started rumbling the bar. “My manager’s gonna fire me,” she giggled.
He raised his fourth screwdriver glass to her. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? he said. He downed his drink.
Then he turned and winked at me. Let’s pop it, baby, he said. He pulled me close. We danced for a bit, then lost the thread and went to lay down on either side of a booth, him on one bench, me on the other. The vinyl was cold and grounding. I pressed one cheek to it and I looked across at him under the table, on the far side of the footwell. I really did love him.
Our afternoon meandered into evening. Keegan came out from behind the bar, her apron folded under one arm, her white shirt open. Red lacy camisole underneath. I’m just saying. He started dancing over to her, holding his arms open.
I blocked his way and shoved him. Don’t be an idiot, I said.
He looked me up and down like he didn’t recognize me.
Meanwhile, Keegan darted out of the door and disappeared into the night.
The new bartender said we should settle our tab because we’d had enough. She had a Caribbean accent and I felt like I really couldn’t argue with her.
Get the coats, I said to him.
Back at my apartment, the world was still spinning. I sat on the floor, leaned my head on the sofa, and turned on the television. Friday the 13th Part Five was on, and I realized it was Friday the 13th.
I yelled that to him, he was back in the bathroom. Oh yeah? he said. You’re right, so it is.
He came out holding the duffel I kept hidden under my jacuzzi. I’d removed the engine and created a nice little hidey hole for my inventory back there. I have a weapon, he said, but I could never use it on you because I’m too fucking in love with you.
Oh that’s sweet of you to say, I said.
But you know, Mona and the boys, they’re bleeding me dry. He slipped the duffel’s strap over a shoulder, picked up the bottle of Pappy’s, never taking an eye off me, and took two big swigs, then set it down again, too hard. Maybe chipped the table. You’re getting kinda sloppy, sweets, he said. They’ll just bust you wide open one of these days. You actually ought to thank me for taking this stuff off your hands. You need to find employment, get yourself in shape. Join a gym. And the hair. It’s too dark.
Jesus, he was a mean drunk. He left then, with my bag, closing the door gently behind him. I still had the remote in my hand, I’d been about to pause the movie, so we could talk. But he was gone.
I phoned down to Jethro. Then I went to take a shower and sober up a bit, because damn, it had been a long day.
He was tied up in a broom closet in the sub-basement. I didn’t know Jethro would slice his face that way, but I don’t tell a man how to do his job.
Jethro’s doorman costume looked a bit dirtied up, and he was missing his little cap, but otherwise, he was cool as can be.
I had on my raincoat, the big hooded one I used to wear when I used to be a dogwalker.
I zipped it up tight, pulled the hood up. Then took my Tec out of the pocket. Confident because I warmed it up at the range on a regular basis. Hell, I’d even let him shoot it once. He knew what a vicious thing it was.
You shouldn’t drink so much, I said.
He was crying. I wasn’t. I guess I really hadn’t loved him as much as I’d thought. I mean, I did love him, but only under optimal conditions. And is that love then, really?
I put its mouth between his brows. It fit right there, perfectly
Your last child will be a girl, I said.
I like your hair, he gasped.
We all laugh about that line now. And I was right about the girl part. Marylea and I named her Keegan.
Keegan and his youngest, Andre, they love each other. We call them the jellybeans because they’re so little and sweet.
After Jethro untied him and I brought him back to the apartment, he made a call to Mona. I told him what to say and eventually we all worked it out. We’re grown-ups.
The two families trick-or-treat together and do other activities like that. Occasionally, when the others aren’t around, I collect a kiss from him and maybe a little grope. He stopped drinking and now he is as mild as milk.