“It better go off without a hitch!”
Earnest Graffen, the Lieutenant Colonel had shouted it from halfway across the room and the other parents laughed. The children were gathering together before the fireplace to read a story they had put together. Throughout the night they had all joined minds and contributed, one line at a time to something on the theme of thanksgiving; Marian had helped. Hammond, fifth or sixth in the queue, looked around nervously but excitedly at the audience, now growing quieter, now slowly directing their attention to the kids, and Marian gave her son a smile and a nod. Margaret, who had chickened out, was helping herself to the chocolate fondue, standing on chair and sampling it with a finger. “John,” said Marian, nodding toward the table. John made a face and hurried over in a discreet kind of stoop. Marian watched as he hoisted her up onto his side, she moaning her disapproval, and pooped her little finger into his mouth, sucking it clean. One of the men of his regiment stopped him to say goodbye, wife and child standing by—a long, firm handshake, then a hug.
“Compliments from Lewis on the asparagus and everything else,” John whispered as he sat back down. Margaret was still fussing. He put her on her feet and she went to Marian, laced her fingers around her neck and attempted to climb up into her lap. Marian cradled her like a baby, which Margaret enjoyed, and indicated with a finger to be quiet. The story had begun, a gangly blonde boy with a crew cut opened confidently with a rhetorical question Marian couldn’t make out, and gestured grandly at his surroundings, their home, which made Marian feel aware again of being the centre of this long affair, she and her husband and her kids and her life.
“Speak up!” shouted the Lieutenant Colonel. Margaret whined and twisted around in her arms.
“I’m going to put her to bed,” Marian whispered to John, currently draining his beer. He set the bottle down behind him and leaned in to kiss Margaret, who blew him a raspberry instead.
“A fine thanksgiving!” said John, and she laughed.
Margaret’s bare, wet skin in the bath felt to Marian what she imagined a dolphin’s skin might feel like, except softer, more yielding to the touch, sweeter smelling. As a newborn Margaret developed acne on her cheeks and nose; an even, rough and flaky redness with little pustules that, combined with a lour that often crossed her face, frightened Margaret for its power to love her child less—showed the bond of motherhood as something that could be broken or diluted. She felt embarrassed around John’s friends, particularly the wives, and on more than one occasion they had pinched Margaret’s red and irritated bulges to show, she was sure, that it was nothing serious, not something they saw or took account of, to reassure her that she was not an inferior mother, that her child was not an inferior child for being ugly. But the redness and strangeness eventually passed and Margaret became a smiling-faced, smart, mischievous, inquisitive and wilful little person, who blew raspberries and withheld kisses for treats and pretended to read books—to know, in fact, the real words and content of a book, even Marian’s own books and novels from the grown-ups bookshelf. “Once upon a time,” she would announce, opening Yeats.
“You ready?” Marian said. Margaret opened her eyes. It was the last bath she’d be taking for a while. Marian didn’t tell her that, she’d have to figure it out on her own.
“Salty, salty bubble bath,” she said, pushing her face into the foam, “yummy salty bubble bath.”
“Yummy salty bubble bath,” Marian repeated, pulling the plug. As the water went down and the twister appeared Margaret put her eye to the empty centre and watched.
In bed, lying perfectly still, Margaret pretended to be dead as the the blanket came down in a broad, black, inescapable wave and covered her, face and all. She sat down beside her still and muted form and waited for movement. She waited for as long as she knew Margaret could stand it, then threw the sheet away in a moment and fell upon her with tickles, Margaret screaming and laughing, suddenly reanimated.
“Again, again!” said Margaret.
“Shh! Not so loud.” Marian tucked her in and smoothed back her hair.
“Again!” insisted Margaret.
“No,” I’ll tell you a story if you’re quiet, and then it’s off to sleep, you have a big day tomorrow.”
“Why do I have a big day tomorrow?” she tested, smiling mischievously. Marian frowned. Most of her toys had been packed away already. Chalk and chalkboards, atlas, animals, roads, cities, cars, space shuttles, jewels and cups and beads. Books.
“Do you want to hear my story?” said Margaret.
“Is it very long?”
She shook her head.
“It’s my thanksgiving story,” she said, “It’s about a Turkey called Yoni—”
“Yes, okay,” said Marian, again smoothing her daughter’s hair. “So what did Yoni do?”
“Umm,” Margaret began. “First, Yoni was in a village, and he was really popular, everyone liked him because he killed the foxes that came in all the time, because there was a forest where the foxes came in from. Whenever there was a fox that came into the village all the chickens and turkeys and everyone said, ‘Yoni! Help us, help us! The foxes have come into the village and they’re going to eat us!’ So Yoni would come out of his house and say, ‘Hey!’” Margaret pointed sternly with a finger, “’Stop eating him! Leave him alone!’ and he would chop him with his sword. And all the foxes listened to Yoni, so anytime they came into the village to eat people and rob people they were afraid of Yoni, because he was in there all the time, doing work in his house, and he could hear them. Then there was a big feast at thanksgiving, there was a really big feast, and all the chickens and turkeys and bears and rabbits were there having a good time at the feast, but some of the…some of the other birds, they were…the…”
“Ohh,” said Marian, “of course, the dragons,”
“They said to the foxes who were in the forest, ‘we’ll give you chickens, so you can look like them’—”
“Yes, chicken suits. They didn’t like Yoni because he was really popular and kept saying, ‘Hey! don’t do that! Go away!’ and kept helping people, but always was just staying in his house and eating and drinking, and then when there was a fox he’d come out and say ‘go away!’”
“So the chicken suits,” Marian prompted.
“All the dragons got chicken suits and gave them to the foxes, and when they came to the big feast and everyone was eating they thought they were chickens and they tricked everyone to kick Yoni out of the town, where there wasn’t anything to eat or drink. And they all kicked him out, they said, ‘Now you get out, Yoni, it’s your fault that the foxes are always coming in, and why all the things aren’t working all time,’ and they kicked him out.
“So Yoni was outside and he was afraid, outside of the town and he was walking, and it was really scary,” Margaret added, suddenly looking frightened and away from the middle distance somewhere where the action was taking place, to her mother, who consoled her with a look of her own—a half-amused look, yet one afraid to dispel the fraught and candid spirit of her storytelling which usually prevailed after a minute or two.
“What was there, out there away from town?” she asked.
“There were old buildings and castles that had been there before but were all crumbled, they were crumbled and everything, all the bad forest animals lived in them, all the bad ones like the foxes and the ghosts lived in them. So Yoni was scared because there were so many of them and he didn’t want to tell them to go away because they would all kill him because there were too many of them. As well there were the bones of the other turkeys who had to go away from the town because of the dragons because they sent them out, and they were all in the acid that was out there, and the sky was red with all the burning of the bones. Yoni kept going because he couldn’t go back and he wanted to get away from all the acid and the ghosts and foxes that were everywhere. And then the dragons were angry because they wanted him to die, so they made a tent for him on the grass, and when Yoni saw it he was very tired so he went to it and made a fire and ate the grass and slept in the tent. But Yoni had a nightmare in the tent and he woke up and then he knew that it was a house of dragons and he got out quickly, and there were the dragons about to kill him! And he fell down and he said, ‘No! Don’t kill me!’ but they did, and after that some owls came and they picked up Yoni’s body and they took him back to the town. All the people in the town came out of their houses because they heard the sound of the owls and they looked up and they saw Yoni. And the owls called down, ‘This is what you did! This is what you did! This is what you did!’”
Margaret’s wide open eyes gaped at Marian, who covered them with a hand.
“Hey!” Margaret protested.
“And then did they all kick the chickens out?”
“No,” said Margaret, “all the foxes are still there in their chicken skins, and they tell everyone that Yoni was bad and he…that it was good that he got killed. But the owls took Yoni up into the tops of trees and made him the king owl because of his white feathers.”
“Did Hammond help you with this?”
“No!” cried Margaret. “It’s all—true,” she said, emphasising each word, attempting to grasp Marian’s necklace for added threat.
“Hey, careful!” said Marian. Applause from downstairs rippled through the house. Laughter. Faint talking from the porch. It’s still going, Marian thought. It hasn’t ended.
“Can we please go to the park tomorrow?” said Margaret.
“We’ll see,” Marian replied automatically. She eased off her shoes, then drew back the sheets.
“No!” Margaret said, reaching protectively for her soft toys, “there’s not enough room for one more!”
“One more, one more,” said Marian, slipping under the covers.
“No!” Margaret began again, before the booming of the corporal’s voice shook the house and they both were quiet. Margaret covered her head with the blanket and Marian met her there in the dark. “He’s grumpy!” Margaret said.
“Well we won’t be seeing much more of Mr Graffen.”
“Why are we moving?” said Margaret. But in the breathy dark Marian was thinking about Colonel Graffen, who one time had placed his thick, weighty hand on her thigh beneath the table in the Graffen’s kitchen after coffee had been set before them. And Mrs Graffen, oblivious had smiled at her, and John, talking about something, had smiled, because Marian, though she hadn’t wanted to, smiled as well. The Colonel, a wheel within a wheel, a rhinoceros among flamingos, shouting, glaring, grinning, winking, made it seem to people as though he were infallible. Only outside of the situation, inspecting it forensically and factually did she come to the conclusion that it was wrong. But she had felt wonderful when his large hand had rested there, when his strong, thick fingers had given the flesh there a squeeze, had felt as though she, a fragile piece of pottery, a honeypot had suddenly cracked open, and here was her honey, he the bear, upright, dauntless, full of desire—inspecting the edges of this secret, deep and illimitable energy. At night, that very night she had entertained images, created them—the dining table cleared, the others gone on some errand, some emergency, and the corporal, grey-haired, flat-toned, hairy-armed had picked her up, violently like a ragdoll and laid her flat, had spread her legs, where was the honey, and broken her in two. This had gone on for several weeks, never progressing past simple, celibate fantasising, and the mention of his name raised the hairs on her arms, made motion inside her, woke wetness, woke something else—that same energy, and she would pray that she wasn’t at that moment blushing. At church one day the chaplain spoke about uncontrolled lust, and about the parable of the seven demons—about the one demon who, having been invited in once, when cast out quickly resumes that appointment, that stewardship initially given him—leader of the house, tall man, patriarch, but with him this time brings seven demons worse than himself. More than making her afraid that she had a demon inside her it made her concerned about casting it out. She didn’t want eight demons inside her. And had it been from Mary Magdalene that seven spirits were cast out? But the eighth remained. And so she considered this her one, her only one, who she would not cast out. And yet, on its own the power of that initial encounter had dimmed, that demon, resurfaced only occasionally and not so vividly and had been replaced instead with a swirling, soft and invisible spirit she felt was the spirit of utter surrender, of life devolving into chaos, the abject desire to be ruled over and dominated and made nothing, which was a violent, obsessive and dominating thing itself, cruel and contrary, raving and insidious and nonsensical. She wanted to be hit and to hit, and to be shown to herself a used, unzipped and traumatised slut, a gibbering, soul-destroyed common cunt, with nothing to offer but her flesh, her spit, her hollow parts. The spirit of the thing, this energy was, as she said, contrary, it was both her and another—for it was she that wanted to be undone and opened up and spat into, and it was also she, this identical image in the mind-composite that made her, that was the one who wanted to do these things, to abuse her, to act through another in punishing and subduing her, and ultimately, and most troublingly, pass it on to others somehow. All these things she felt were potential but very real parts of this thing she decided and continued to call her spirit which, perhaps by its own guile, deeply excited her, when it didn’t deeply concern her.
“You will protect me,” Marian said, and pulled her daughter in close to her.
“Cah!” said Margaret. “Your perfume smells!” She turned herself around and Margaret drew her in tighter, wrapped her arms around her and felt her warm, clean, soft skin against her palms, her finger tips. The muffled sound of rain softly pattering against the window began, the talking stopped, a car door somewhere closed. Another.
“What are you thinking about, baby?”
Margaret was quiet. Her breathing was quick and gentle. Marian imagined the life inside her daughter’s head. She was scared of so many things, like her. She wondered who it was that gave her nightmares, that told her things were going to be bad when everything was fine, made her afraid to be alone in the dark, to hear a noise from somewhere she couldn’t see. Birth, her own mother had said once to her, was binary. It did not happen once. The body is born of the body, the womb. But the mind is not yet born until later, until perhaps age six or seven. Then it has been born, and that of the world around it, the world of other minds, just like for that child the womb was the world of the body. A mind can be born of a wicked, poisonous world of other minds, and then it will be wicked, and can rarely, if ever, be corrected after that. Just as a body born of a poisonous womb will be unhealthy—crippled for life. A body can be born crippled, because its world, the body world was bad, but the mind inside that same body be born healthy and good, several years later. Marian had been prepared for a crippled child; she didn’t know how she would deal with it exactly, mentally, and she supposed it would be a life-long challenge she would require grace for day-to-day. But her children, yes both of them had been born perfectly well, and so she resolved to focus on that other birth, the birth of her children’s minds, the time of whose completion she didn’t know.
Marian pulled the sheets back slowly and squinted out at the light. Standing, she uncovered her daughter’s head, tucked the blanket in around her shoulder, then turned off the lamp.
“Sorry I missed it,” she said to John downstairs, who was dancing with his mother.
The corporal and several other people had left. One of the women was clearing the table.
“That’s fine Penny, I’ll take care of all this,” said Marian. Tipsy, with a cigarette between her fingers she squinted at Marian, then hugged her. Penny’s husband slipped a hand around his wife’s waist and she fell into his arms.
“I’ll take care of her,” he said. “Everything was wonderful. We might see you at Christmas,” he said, turning to shake John’s hand as he passed like a boy on a carousel.
“You will!” shouted John over the music, pointing, though not at his friend, nor at Penny; at the window, at the carcass of the turkey.
Marian did the dishes by hand. Besides the fact that the dishwasher was small and slow, there was a satisfaction in seeing the vast and complex clutter reducing, being stripped to its simpler, indivisible beginnings, making Jenga of the cups, plates, strainer, ramekins; something John may or may not nod at indiscreetly and say “Wow!” while she hides her smile. She listened to the low sound of her husband and another man talking in the living room by the fire. As she wiped the countertops she tried to remember the man’s face, the speaker, and form a picture of the what it was under discussion. The man’s tone indicated that it was something secret, and Marian recognised that in John’s field there were things that he must keep secret, and be forced to lie about, though it wasn’t in his nature to lie. She tried her best at the end of each day to ask only questions he was able to equivocate on if he needed to—usually that meant not talking at all, though it hadn’t always been the case. She heard John light a cigarette which he did only rarely since he had quit. The man was exhorting him, some exchange had taken place, a word of caution, a grave sentiment or prediction, Marian felt light for a moment, excited and scared. Not looking, she toppled a wine bottle and caught it as it hit the counter. The conversation had stopped; she stood perfectly silent for several seconds before continuing. At the door the two were shaking hands. The man looked at Marian briefly, then walked to his car.
“Who was that man?” Marian said casually as John entered, “I don’t remember meeting him during the party, did he come later?”
“You shouldn’t have been listening,” John said, looking around for somewhere to put out his cigarette, and maybe even bitter that the plates had been cleared, spoiling his opportunity to put the cigarette out in a bit of gravy or meatloaf as he used to do. Marian took it and he smiled, kissed her on the cheek, and she smiled back. Hammond in his pyjamas came from the games room, knuckling an eye.
“Whoa what are you doing up, champ?” John said, saddling him on a hip.
“I said he could watch TV for a little while, finish his movie,” Marian called softly after John as he left, mounted the steps to the kids’ room.
Marian took the empty wine bottle and held it above the recycling, but considered dropping it instead on the tiles.
“Shut up,” she said. To herself or to John, she didn’t know. There was a roar overhead as a fighter jet made a pass. Marian put the bottle gently down into the bin and then, as though realising for the first time that it was an option, put the cigarette in her mouth and went into the back garden.
A shiver ran through her and made her sway as the smoke hit her lungs, but she held it in then released it only slowly. She was too irritated to shower and go to bed. She would have a bath too, she thought, like a little baby. She stepped out into the rain and put her nose to the sky, smelled the sweet, heavy smell of trees. She wondered what it would smell like at the new house when it rained. She wondered if it did rain. Out on the street the sound of a car purred. She walked to the side gate and looked through one of the slats. The guest from before was sitting in the passenger seat, his face illuminated by a computer screen.
“Who…?” Marian said quietly to herself.
The man in the SUV turned, looked toward the gate where she was and Marian looked back, unblinking as the SUV indicated and rolled slowly away.