“…yet have you known a reprobated mystery.”
—THE BOOK of ENOCH
There was power in the moment of landing, that belonged to her more than the aeroplane itself, Ephyra had always thought. The take-off is the plane’s, it is human achievement and immortality. The landing is mine. She saw herself soaring out toward something dark and indomitable, out there in the wind and dark, colliding with it, embracing, and pushing it. It had worked when she landed in Seattle for the first time. And then again in London. When she was afraid and felt like deflating into her seat when the seatbelt warning came on. Those were times of profound excitement and novelty. When her body seemed like something she was gripping onto, peering nervously from, as from within the whirling teacup ride at the Royal Show.
No, she thought. This is different. She looked down at the baggage handlers in their fluorescent vests shouting among each other and laughing. These are my brothers, she thought, the brutes. There was the one with the flesh-tunnelled earlobes. And there is the funny one, who funnels beers. Somewhere here is the angry one. I hope I do not meet the angry one. She chided herself, searched for something positive. She pressed the crown of her head into the seat before her and closed her eyes, tried to imagine herself completely stationary, as though the cabin were not trailing slowly over the airfield but instead planted firm inside an ice cube in the arctic. Permafrost. Where it was clean and perfectly soundless. And she was alone. She willed the pain inside her head, her stomach to cooperate in their reinterpretation as something like the much cleaner, evenly radiating pain of exposure, then jumped when the captain’s voice punched through the speakers.
You’re looking a little…filled out,” said Melanie.
“And you look old.”
Melanie laughed and pinched at her leg and the car lurched.
“Easy,” said Ephyra.
“Easy,” echoed Millie in the back. She was still working on a puzzle on her iPad; the screen lit her face a candy-coloured pink.
“That screen’s too bright for her, don’t you think, Mel?”
Her sister glanced back through the mirror at her daughter and smiled.
“Yeah, maybe. You can change it if you can get it off her.”
The girl wasn’t listening. Ephyra watched the eyes now rowing back against a white list of something; her finger glanced along the tablet’s surface as though she were attempting to remove a speck of something with the broadest and most fleeting gestures possible. Tick, tick, tick.
“What is it?” Ephyra asked.
“Eleven letters,” Millie replied absently. “The clue is ‘repeat’.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” said Melanie.
Ephyra blurred her eyes for a moment against the endless sprint of the highway’s glowing white lines. She had trouble conjuring any eleven-letter word. She tried to spell out ‘repetition’. Quietly tapped it out against her thigh.
“They wanted to skip her ahead but she said she wanted to stay with her friends.”
“Good call,” Ephyra murmured. She sunk lower into her seat and allowed her eyes to close. But there was the needling sense of her inadequacy. She tapped out ‘recurring’ in the dark. She had been the class dux. They had had a special red file for her, she and a couple of others. Special assignments. A special lesson each week on essay structure. Algebra.
But she was happy for Millie…of course she was happy.
She groaned silently.
“So are you excited?”
“To see Mum and Dad?”
“Oh. Yes! Sorry, I was somewhere else.” She bristled at being forced to assent to something so patently false.
No, I am not excited.
Anxious, yes. And apprehensive.
Her sister gave her knee a couple of firm pats and Ephyra forced a smile. She made a close-lipped noise, a stunted vocalisation she had always been fond of that was like a ‘hmm’, without the ‘mmm’ to make it inquiring or inconclusive. It was something her grandmother had done frequently and it worked well to quietly regain control and a posture of wisdom when she felt condescended.
“Well it won’t be like Thanksgiving with Tom, but it’ll be nice won’t it?”
Another forced laugh.
“Yes! Of course. Thanksgiving, no, we didn’t do a Thanksgiving in the end, Tom was so busy. I did have a turkey club at Arby’s though, if memory serves. It was good.”
“What’s Arby’s?” said Millie.
“It’s a fancy takeaway place in Seattle, Millie,” her sister said, raising her voice.
“It’s not fancy, it’s…just a regular fast food joint.”
“Did you bring some back?”
“Did you bring anything back?”
“Don’t bother your aunty, Millie, please.” Her sister was changing focus between the mirror and the road.
“No, it’s okay, not bothering me. Actually, Millie,” Ephyra said, twisting around to see her niece, but she had her earphones in.
Ephyra sighed and settled back. She clasped both hands on her face and closed her eyes.
“You haven’t told Mother yet?” said Melanie quietly.
“What? About what?”
“New York. Tom wants to live in New York, doesn’t he?”
“Yes. No,” said Ephyra. “Not that. Not yet.”
“And?” Melanie pushed.
“Fie, I’m not trying to have an argument, relax,” she said, and took her hand. “What did Tom say when you told him?”
“Oh of course he thinks it’s all just family bullshit, like I’ll just explain the situation—a phone call, an email, it’ll be okay. He doesn’t understand.”
“And you want to move to New York as well? When you get married?”
“It’s what’s best for Tom. His work.”
“Your work too, Fie.”
“I don’t know,” Ephyra said, and looked out the window. “I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to talk to her?”
“No,” said Ephyra, “I can do it.” She turned back to her sister and smiled. “Thanks.”
“Might be the last time, Fie,” her sister said consolingly, and Ephyra privately mimed the words she had heard so many times before.
Her father had lost weight. His face looked like a lump of clay from which someone had gouged two great pieces to replace the cheeks. His smile was black and brittle.
“How are you, Dad,” she said as they drew each other in.
“So good to see you,” he breathed. Maybe he was crying.
The hug ended and in the darkness it was hard to tell what his face was saying. He laughed distractedly then held the screen door open as Melanie swayed past with her baggage.
“More in the car, Dad,” she said. She hoisted the large case up the step as though it were empty.
“Grandpa!” Millie dropped her bags and ran. Ephyra’s father opened his arms and let out a long, raspy growl. The girl was a lithe, white blur that leapt, and her father caught her in his arms. She clung to him and he bowed like an old tree in a gale. Melanie rushed out and scolded the child as she headed back to the car for more. Their father, a bright red, laughed.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said a moment too late, waving his hand, and he lingered at the door to catch his breath. He looked like he was blowing out candles on a cake, the trick ones that keep going and going, Ephyra thought. It didn’t suit him.
“Go on, go on,” he said, then smiled.
The house was uncomfortably cool. With iPad in hand, Millie was standing on a shelf of the pantry and reaching for something out of sight. When Melanie returned she strode to the kitchen and began rinsing cups.
“What tea would you like, Ephyra?” she said.
“Is there green tea?”
Melanie set the cups down and dried her hands on a tea towel. Millie jumped down with a jar of something colourful and ran, the back screen door squeaking then shutting with a clap behind her.
“What’ve you got in here, rocks?”
Ephyra’s father, canting with the weight of the remaining luggage, shuffled down the front hall. Ephyra hurried to help. He brushed her away, and she caught a glimpse of something fierce, then he smiled.
“It’s okay,” he said, then squeezed past her.
“Green tea, Dad?” her sister said, searching the cabinet.
“Just black, thanks.”
He braced himself against a chair back, wheezing gently for a moment then sat.
“Maybe in the pantry,” Melanie winked to Ephyra.
The pantry was empty. Unopened packets of herbs. Curry powder. A mouse had been among the meagre store, had left itself in small brown lumps like burnt rice here and there. Weevils in the oats. Ephyra found the biscuit tin and shook it gently. She opened it. Earl Grey. English breakfast. She took three at random, then went and laid them down beside the kettle.
“Cheers,” said Melanie.
Ephyra eased herself into the oak highchair that had been hers as a child. Her father was blowing out candles again. She didn’t know where to look.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
The steel kettle was ticking. She could hear the water sway and hiss as it settled.
“Yes,” he said at length, looking up. “How is Tom?”
“Tom is doing really well, he’s still busy, though. He sends his love.”
“Good.” He said, glancing with small pecks of his eyes at the diamond ring. That was that. He rolled a cigarette.
“It’s time for a new set of washers on these taps I think, Dad,” Melanie was saying. She seemed determined to make herself useful. There were dishes piled along the kitchen bench. Empty mugs. The window was filthy. “Rich could do it in a second, I’ll ask him if you like.”
Her father muttered something that might have been as likely ‘good’ as ‘he could’. He crossed a leg and looked down at the floor. The topic offended him.
When her sister put his cup of tea down before him he roused himself, put away something unresolved and smiled.
Ephyra reached for the honey.
“Where is that little box I left here, Dad?” her sister said, searching the pantry.
“The one with the Sweet’n Low? It was here on top of the sugar last time.”
“Your mother threw it out.”
“Keep your voice down,” he said, and blew on his tea.
A slight film of cobweb silvered a fold of the curtains at a grommet. Ephyra thought she could see movement. As her sister and father talked she stood with her tea and went slowly to the living room. The paintings had changed around a bit, but they were still all there. Her mother had done them years ago, most of them. The best ones were for competitions, ones she had taken out wrapped in butcher paper, brought back home then hung on the wall and they had stayed there just like that, pointing back to the thing they had been about once, but failed to attain to. There was a local awareness campaign about deadfall, what they called fuel, the litter of the trees that heaped up year after year and in the summer would be great tracts of tinder for the fires. Here was her mother’s entry, above the fireplace. Ephyra warmed herself as she stared up at it. A calm, dawn-lit forest, the smoke spinning the rising sun into long, soft strands of light, and the fire roaming elegantly through the brush. There was something primordial, vacant and dreamy about it, which was the problem. Her mother had called it Shearjashub, though had not explained that to anyone, or attempted any defence of the painting itself.
“How’s the garden doing, Dad?” Ephyra called.
“Bore packed up again,” her father called back, then added: “Given it to the devil.”
She wandered back into the kitchen.
“It’s wonderful, Fie,” her sister said. “He was out there every day with the hose in that heatwave, weren’t you Dad?”
He hadn’t heard; he was gazing down with a returning look of quiet perturbation. Melanie laughed.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” she said, and stood. “We’ll be back in a sec, Dad.”
“Good,” he said.
“Millie-vanilli,” Melanie called, searching. The girl was a spectral greenish-yellow, a smooth and flawless face glowing, frowning far out there beneath a tree. Ephyra went to raise her hand but she felt certain her sister saw her too. She had always been her sister’s little rousie. She set things up for her to do, and Ephyra would do them.
She wanted to lie down.
“Millie-manilli?” her sister called again.
“What?” the girl replied.
Melanie gave a start, and reached out her hand. Something about the gesture reminded Ephyra of death. The involuntary flutter and fall, the sag of her arm trailing, wobbling vainly after the motion, casting something out into the sheer dark. The sound of the child’s pert little voice had hung in the air for an instant longer than natural. It was an effect peculiar to her father’s garden, that caught visitors off guard from time to time. It wasn’t unusual when they had first moved in for her and her sister to be found sitting each under a tree, calling things out to one another in turn. Testing, waiting.
“Pray for us!”
“Pray for us!”
“Pray for us!”
“Pray for us!”
“Ianua caeli!” and so on, Ephyra laying down the names of the Holy Virgin that were written on her mother’s special Loreto cards, the ones with the pyramids and eyes and daggers and doves that were good for remembering, and which she would hold up in front of her with the back toward her older sister sitting at the other end of the garden. And when Melanie got stuck she would wait for her to guess, or turn the card around and watch her squint down uncertainly at it. There were other things they had shouted to each other, though she had forgotten what they were.
Melanie smiled and waved again, as though to amend the first.
“There you are my darling!” she said flicking hot tea from her fingers. “We’re coming out to you!”
Beneath the tree Millie was eating jellies from the jar and working on another puzzle. Melanie did a kind of leaning squat against the tree, and Ephyra squatted for a moment with her tea before her, her forearms resting on her thighs the way she remembered her father would, but her legs grew bloodless quickly and stung. She sat. The grass was cool and slightly damp. Out beside the paddock the great crowns of jarrah swished and murmured. The air was sweet with something. The grass, she guessed. The forest. Eucalyptus. She closed her eyes against the breeze.
The stillness was profound. A slow, sleep-drunk stillness. And there was something absent among it; she had the sense that maybe she had forgotten something, dimly. She allowed herself to reach, to press dreamily at it, enjoyed its uncertainty, its formlessness.
“The goats are gone,” she said, opening her eyes.
“There’s one out there.”
“Tate,” said Millie, not looking up.
“Dad reckons he can’t manage a whole flock now that Mum is…” Melanie fumbled. Her eyelids fluttered and she shook her head in the slight, determined manner of someone loath to retrace their steps. “The rest are drums now, in any case.”
“But why Tate? Why couldn’t he keep Fargo or Billy or Lisa?”
“I don’t know,” said Melanie, and sipped on her tea, and Ephyra sensed that she been more abrupt than she had intended. Melanie lowered herself slowly and settled in among the roots beside her daughter, then pulled a stick from beneath her, inspecting it briefly before tossing it. Ephyra took another sip of her tea then set it down in the grass and lay back.
They were talking about the puzzle. The initial task had dissolved.
There, Ephyra thought, there is the garden. I see it. We are here.
Upside down, in the kitchen her father was washing dishes. The window was foggy and he was wearing the expression she had seen when she was on the plane, and before that. When she was at home packing. A quiet, drudging despair. A kind of wince and a downturning of the lips. It reminded her of a child, yet it wasn’t the kind of expression a child could conjure naturally, because it was the fruit of something much grander than normal suffering. It was the certitude of suffering, to the exclusion of anything else. It was the long-winded collapsing of a wave function that narrowed joy down to the anticipation of distress.
Ephyra chuckled tiredly and rolled onto her side. She looked into the rising woods and worked through the list.
Daunting depth, she thought. Unresisted silence.
Her father would laugh. She would tell a story when she went inside. But about what? So many things had happened since she last visited but she felt that none of it was really worth telling in its own right. A story needed a punchline. A purpose. So much of her life was incomplete. Outlines reached and failed to join.
A dish broke. Her father swore.
“Oh, I’d better get that,” Melanie said, and heaved herself up. She was answering a bell. A telephone. She liked to help. She watched her hurry off, swinging an arm and skipping here and there in her hurry.
“What’s the clue?”
“Room within a room.”
There was a pause.
“Are you looking forward to school, Millie?” Ephyra asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“What else are you looking forward to?” She stifled a sudden, powerful inclination to yawn.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“It’s an all-girls school.”
“But at the other schools, don’t boys come and try to visit, or you meet them on the oval during lunch. That happens?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe once.” She thought about it. “It sounds like that might have happened once. To my friend…”
But she had embarrassed her. She was struggling to make an answer out of nothing. Had it happened or hadn’t it? She thought of something else to talk about.
“When your mother and I went to school, she was in the top year, it used to go all the way to year ten, so I was in year three.”
She didn’t have a story. What had happened. How did she get here. What did she used to be?
“I remember,” she continued. “I remember your grandmother used to time us getting ready, making lunch. I would be the quickest, most of the time. I would make peanut butter and jam.”
“You made your own lunch?”
“Yeah. I remember I was allowed to make other things, but I liked peanut butter. Melanie liked goat meat. Whenever there was leftovers she would make a sandwich out of it. But she would tell people it was mutton, and that it was from the butcher’s. She didn’t like people to know that we killed the goats; that we ate them.”
“Because…I don’t know why. There’s something pathetic about it. Don’t you think? Meat from the grocer’s is something you exchange money for. You just give him the money, and say how much of it you want—whatever it is—and he takes it and puts it in some paper, and then you finish your shopping. You leave. But we, when we were kids, we were killing them. Killing the goats.”
“You killed goats?”
“Did Mum kill goats too?”
“I don’t want to say.”
Millie crawled over to her, looked down at her. The light of the tablet now beside Ephyra’s head lit the left side of the girl’s face a soft blue.
“What?” Ephyra chuckled. Millie’s breath was sweet with the jellies. Her eyes flashed.
“Tell me,” she said with exaggerated graveness.
“You would have to promise—”
“I promise!” she said.
“Have you tried ‘tenement’?”
“Yes!” she said, taking her auntie’s head in both hands, “It doesn’t fit! Tell me!”
“Hmm…have you tried—”
“About the goats, damn it!”
Ephyra laughed, rolled out from under her gaze then sat upright. She looked out at the empty paddock. The forest beyond.
“Yes,” she said. “Your sister killed goats. We both did. It was something your granddad taught us.”
“So you did it…like grandad? With a knife? When? When you were my age?”
Ephyra looked at her niece, studied her face and compared memories of her sister.
“For food, like I was saying.”
“But why didn’t you go to the butcher’s? Because it’s pathetic…”
“The other way…?”
“Yes,” said Millie. “The other way. Raising them, feeding them, milking them. I know what you mean.”
“Because—” Now Millie was looking out at the dark, bare paddock. She drew in her jacket. “Because it would be like…a secret. At least, at my school it would be.” She began brushing her lips meditatively with a lock of her straight blonde hair.
“Why did grandma time you getting ready?”
“Did I say that?”
“Yes. That was the whole story,” said Millie.
“She did—” Ephyra turned away. She followed the words, tried to connect them to their source. She had an image of her mother fiddling with the piano. In the morning as they got ready for school—simple things she’d learned or made up herself. Bach. Arvo Pärt. She had the clock on the wall above the piano. What was she doing, Ephyra thought, our mother? All those mornings. Who, what was the playing about.
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.
“I don’t know…I’d have to think about it now.” She said.
She listened to the chirruping of the frogs carrying over on the autumn air. She looked over at the jar of candy sitting by the tree. “I don’t know how you’re going to get to sleep now.”
“I don’t want to go to sleep. I want to stay up. Do you want to go to sleep?”
“Not—” Not in there, she was going to say. “Not just yet.”
“The other week, at school, my friend Gina,” the girl began. She was climbing the usual steps to a story. Each element was being set in place. Ephyra was switched on suddenly; she couldn’t think of anything more important in the world than to hear and learn by heart what was being said. “We were in the library, it was Friday, we’re allowed to read at the end of the day—”
“What do you read?”
“Um…” she said. “I still haven’t finished ‘The New Atlantis’ by Sir Francis Bacon.”
“Wow! That’s a big book!” She had meant to say complicated or complex or mature, but those words were not there, and they were as insincere things to say as ‘big’, given she had never read Sir Francis Bacon.
“Not really,” said Milly, and held her finger and thumb apart a few centimetres to indicate by how far she’d misspoken. “It is hard, though,” she laughed demurely, satisfied with the compliment. “I’ve been reading it for ages.”
“And it’s about Atlantis?”
“Sort of. They talk about it. But it’s set on an island called Bensalem.”
“Yeah. These people on a boat land there, and they’re allowed to stay for six weeks. And all the people there are really advanced, like in the future. They have all kinds of technology, and there’s no crime, and they have, like, electricity. But he doesn’t say that; he says they have all different kinds of heats, and lights, and fires, and the ability to transform different energies. And they have like, genetic…”
“Yes. And scientific testing. They basically have nuclear energy.”
“Really?” Ephyra laughed.
“They don’t say that. They say they have heat like the sun for scientific application. And they can see microscopically, in your blood. They have superior medicines. And they have buildings a half-mile high.”
“That’s…as tall as the Burj Khalifa?”
“When was this written?”
“Who rules the place, do they have a democracy?”
“It’s a little murky on that. It’s not like a political treatise, so it’s kind of…I think it’s the scientists. It’s this institution called Salomon’s House. They want to be able to do anything and everything. They want to find out everything about the universe. Microscopically and macrocosmically. So they kind of rule the place, and the government is subject to them.”
“Who taught you all these things?”
“Grandma.” Millie grinned.
“You’re precious,” said Ephyra. She pressed into the grass with her fists and hovered a moment there. The breeze was cool against the wet of her jeans.
“Where do you think we’re going?”
She knew what she meant. She was looking up.
“I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”
“I want to go to France. I want to go to India. I want to go to London. I want to read all the books I’m not supposed to read.”
“And up there?”
“I just hope there’s something for me to do. Maybe I can be a diplomat.”
“Maybe,” Ephyra said. But she was hearing her mother on the piano. Up the scale. Down. A pause. A note that said…something. “The meaning,” she had said, “is in between the notes.”
Da-da da. Da.
“I gotta have a shower,” said Ephyra, “I’m filthy.”
She stood. Her niece laid back in the grass and took up her iPad.
“Hm,” said Ephyra, and smiled. “Don’t catch a cold.”
“I won’t,” she said. “I’m invincible.”
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” Ephyra whispered. She fumbled with the moisturiser. The tiny airplane-safe capsule with the fiddly little cap. She had been loafing hopelessly through her bedtime ritual, and felt unable to assume any kind of rhythm. It had all been lost in the bright, fringeless haze of the last thirty hours. She had been lonely out there. The layover at LAX dragged on and on, and she had found a quiet place beside a big square pot plant to rest her head and gaze out at the grey vista of concrete, the little men making sense of the inscrutable hours. Snaking crates and plastic bins of things around. She hadn’t really slept though. Now it seemed like a big deal, some abstract thing to be achieved, and she wondered if she could at all.
The drain was filthy, as she remembered it. She caught a glimpse of it now; hair caught spit and tar in clumps. She turned suddenly away and knocked a glass from the counter and it shattered against a flag.
“Fuck. Fuck, fuck.”
She instinctively looked to the door. A wave of fear. The noise, the violence of the transformation spread and swept her thoughts outward in a wave. Things were clear for a moment, her ears rung, her teeth began to chatter, and she felt quickened and sharp. Then the heavy spell of the house moved in again. She crouched and began to collect the larger pieces into the wastebasket. It was an aura, she knew, that surrounded the place. She had felt it bleed in when they had slowed on the long dirt road and turned in. She recognised the patterns of the trees. In the beams of the headlights they were standing in obeisance to some inherited task they had never once questioned, the shell of the old ute, too, the axe and the chopping block, and their shadows together swung round in a slow, solemn black fan then went dark again.
“Sorry, Dad,” Ephyra called back. “Just dropped a glass.”
“Got a dustpan here, you want me to give it a go?”
Ephyra stood, looked around at the glittery mess then unlocked the door.
“You cut yourself?”
“No, I’m fine, luckily. I’m just…really tired.”
“You’d better go to bed.”
“But—” she began.
“It’s alright, I’ve got it. You get some sleep.”
She twisted on the spot to gather up her clothes then gave them a gentle shake.
“Just beside the laundry basket,” he said.
They stood, saying nothing. She reached and felt his beard with a hand and he smiled. You’re old, she wanted to say. When did this happen? “Your eyes are red. And you’re all smokey,” she said.
“The flue’s buggered again—trying to keep that damn thing going.”
She yearned to brush away a tear that seemed to wait there at the corner of his eye. He was always having trouble with his eyes. It wasn’t just the smoke; it was the dust in the house. It was things moulding. He was moulding.
“I love you, Dad,” she said.
In the garden. The half moon shone through the lattice. The lattice where the vines grew. Through it a man was falling. A lithe, well-dressed man with swarthy skin. He was falling slowly, gracefully, with the weight of a leaf, with the poise of a downward-pointed sword. Through the lattice he passed, the way a shadow passes, unimpaired and absolute, and her mother was screaming. She was screaming. Her mother screamed.
Ephyra threw the sheets aside and sat upright. She waited, perfectly still, listening, her eyes gaping emptily ahead of her. The long, plaintive cry swelled jagged and ruptured the quiet, frayed through the magic garden and echoing, died. She parted the curtain beside her bed and looked out at the paddock shouldered by the weight of a thick blue mist.
“Tate,” she breathed, “God damn you, goat.”
and I was fed on milk from her
white rays of neverending gleet
I was clothed in sheets of filth
and I was hollowed in her glare
(“this is the one that I made,
and I will keep it.”)
I once was deep in the dead water
but rose from the red-limbed river blue—
slick as the earth’s turd
and plumed in moss and creatures.
she said that
these were souls spread in listless anger,
lips sucking at the
I had a tail
but sat them down a lee
and watched them from
the seat of Venus
returning to the clay.
DECEMBER 1985, NEW HAMPSHIRE, U.S.A.
“Does she usually look like that?”
“Like this—” said Riley, and gazing emptily upward propped a fist beneath her cheekbone, her mouth dumbly agape in imitation of her niece. She was watching the small television on its trolley at the head of the class. At that moment Pearl evoked for Riley some kind of reptile, a mud-dwelling thing fatigued by an age of drought.
“What is that?” said Riley, squinting at the television.“It’s Kai Rudy. It’s his Christmas Revue.”
“I can’t believe he’s still alive.” Riley indulged a small wind of irrational hatred by focussing on the host’s loose skin, the dewlap sagging slightly over his collar. She looked at the children. “Are you allowed to do that? Just wheel in a TV and let them…sit there?”
“It’s the last day, so yeah, I guess. Kai Rudy is a sweetheart, what’s your problem?”
Riley checked the young woman, a former high school classmate whom she had never known that well. She turned back to the television, where the host in his tuxedo was rehearsing a punchy exchange with a fluffy white beauty queen before a set of spangled pink. Silk foliage, gushing red rows of Heart-of-Jesus. All she could think of was that glossy 356 or 189 or whatever it was, smeared on thin, sun-worn skin somewhere. Rudy’s probing lips like an ape reaching for a straw. She shook it off.
“Remember when it was like, quiet reading time at the end of the day? What happened to that?”
“Give me a break.”
Riley surveyed the faces. Soft-eyed, open-mouthed expressions; a toneless blend of anticipation and dissociation. She wondered if any of them would recall a single moment of it, this day, this hour, or whether it would all be swept up, mixed in with the other smells and shadows and cloistered spaces that made life a mystery from afar. When Riley inhaled it smelled of heating vents and the teacher’s perfume.
Now she narrowed her eyes at the children, row upon row of them lazing in the mud and waiting for the bell to ring.
A child toward the back of the class was made animate suddenly by a switch of the television’s image—a glimpse of commercials, a squeak and a flutter of magenta, then back to Kai Rudy. Singing an outro. Riley watched as the boy, with the quiet, smiling expression of one having seen some small work of magic, looked to the slumped figure beside him, though with no like sentiment forthcoming the expression resolved gracefully to its former slackness and disappeared.
“So Witchbrook, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Riley.
“She gonna miss me?”
“I’m sure she will. She talks about you.” Riley was struggling to remember the name of the woman standing next to her.
“How’s the other one? How’s Veda?”
“She’s doing good.”
“Really?” she looked up, hopeful.
“Actually…to be honest I haven’t seen her since—” Riley stopped, chose her words. “Since a while ago.”
“That’s a shame. I can’t get anything out of her mother. She’s such a…such a darn termagant. No offence, Riley.” Riley had no idea what a termagant was, but she enjoyed the feeling of being gracious about it. “She was so lovely,” the woman reflected. “Veda. So bright, so quick to the draw. And then…” She allowed a space for the spiralling slideshow of swearing, spitting, jet-black eyeshadow. “When she started high school I only ever heard stories. I always hoped she’d even out.”
“She’ll get there. Veda’s just…got a lot of anger.”
“Well I’m sure Pearl will turn out okay. It’s a shame she couldn’t finish the last semester here. I feel there are so many things I could have worked on. She’s been pretty down the last couple of weeks. Ever since the move, I guess.”
“What do you mean ‘down’? Down how?”
“Just moody. Sort of strange. She hasn’t been finishing assignments. She day-dreams.”
“Well, will she…?”
“Oh, she won’t get held back. She’s still one of my best students. I had a lot of good things to pass on to Witchbrook Elementary. But she has a temper. I don’t think she’s sleeping properly.”
They were looking in at Pearl, still in a stupor, oblivious to the light chatter breaking out around her.
“She’s probably just nervous about the change, she’ll miss her friends.”
The young woman hesitated. “Pearl doesn’t have many friends, Riley. Not many at all. She misses her aunty.”
Riley took it for granted, but it hurt. There was an extended pause in which they each said nothing, but watched the dismal, crooning solo roll on before mercifully fading to the final iteration of the sponsor company, children roused awake by other children, marking the beginning of the Christmas holidays.
“Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Pearl huffed quietly, squinting out at the white glare of snow that bounded from the roofs of the passing houses. Between getting in the car and her first jab she had managed to draw a band of her blonde hair down from her ponytail to drape across her eyes, and it was from behind this that she judged and hated everything they passed. Riley reached to brush it back behind an ear, and there was something pleasing about the ensuing conflict, the grapple of hands, a vain battle of dominion fought in silence with no clear end.
“I don’t believe this,” Pearl said at last, folding her body further in toward her window.
“I thought kids were supposed to be happy when the holidays started,” Riley offered only half teasingly, giving Pearl’s cheek a gentle pinch to emphasise her victory.
“I would be if I were doing what I wanted to do.”
“Oh, big plans for the first ten minutes of holidays? Spoiled are they?”
“No! You were supposed to pick me up from my friend’s house! We were going to have a going-away celebration for me!”
“Oh. Well your mother said to pick you up from school. I can drop you off there after, though. You can show them all the cool stuff your Aunty bought you. It’ll be great.”
“It’s not even your money, do you expect me to be grateful?”
Riley said nothing but felt Pearl’s insistent, fractious gaze. Pearl turned and wedged herself closer against the window. After a period of quiet in which only the air-conditioner and the occasional muted whoosh of a car passing interposed the tension, Riley cleared her throat, then burst out, curling her words:
“We can get milkshakes while we’re there!” She squirled her neck around to confront her face-on like a pelican.
“I could get a milkshake with my friends. Or by myself for crying out loud, I don’t get why I have to be babysat. I’m mature, it’s not like I can’t handle money.”
“You can handle an allowance. A few bucks a week. Not an inheritance, sweetie, it’s a different matter.”
“Don’t condescend me!” Pearl shouted.
“I’m sorry,” said Pearl, and continued looking sullenly out the window.
“It’s okay,” Riley said, and fighting the inevitable sense of having failed before she had begun, tilted her head toward her, keeping an eye on the road. “Look. I don’t know how much your Mom and Dad ever told you about your great-grandfather. Probably nothing, and that’s their decision. But I guess you’ve found out by now that he was a wealthy man—”
“They had a three-foot bottle of Don Perignon at the funeral,” Pearl interrupted, in a tone of impatient indignation softened by what seemed to Riley to be a genuine bedazzlement and persuasion. She suspected it was more accurately the tone of a girl indignant at having been kept a stranger to such glittery extravagance as a three-foot bottle of champagne at a funeral. Riley tactfully passed over the malapropism, as well as the fact that it was a bottle of Moët—a Nebuchadnezzar to be exact, which was not quite three foot, but still a grotesque addition to any scenario involving a dead body.
“Yes, and that’s not the beginning of it. Your great-grandfather, if he chose, could have drunk a bottle of Dom Pérignon every week. That’s how wealthy I mean when I say wealthy.”
“Then why did he live in such a crappy place?”
“Well,” Riley began. “First off, it’s not a crappy place, it has five bedrooms. If you knew anything about the property prices in Witchbrook—”
“Why would I care about that?”
“You lived in a flat!” Riley volleyed back. “How are you complaining, Pearl? What is it about a mansion that you don’t like?”
“It’s weird, the basement is full of junk, the wind blows through the house all the time and makes a whistling noise, the kitchen is upstairs instead of downstairs, there’s a gross smell, the heating’s broken and it’s freezing! At least in the old house it was warm! And besides it’s just creepy, it belongs to a dead dude!”
“Yeah? So do a lot of things you enjoy, Pearl. And there are plenty of people in the family who were a lot closer to that man than your mother and I who came out with next to zilch. I’d say a house and a fund is pretty good. No you don’t get the money up front, that’s just not how it works, you’ll have to be patient.”
“But I do get to buy expensive new clothes that I wouldn’t spit on if they were on fire.”
“And you agree with it?”
“Because it’s going to…what? magically turn me into a lawyer, or a doctor, or a judge or something?”
Riley took a deep breath. She reached and gently took Pearl’s wrist in her hand.
“Pearl, if you became a waitress, or a labourer like your dad, or a dishwasher…if that was truly what you wanted, and you were happy, I would be happy too. I didn’t know my grandfather that well, but here is a point I think I can sympathise with: you don’t need to be rich to have big dreams—but you do need to have the right state of mind. You do need to esteem yourself. Do you know what that means? It means that you respect yourself. You admire yourself, and you admire yourself because you see the same thing other people see—tall, confident, happy, ready.
“It’s a lesson you should learn early, Pearl. In this world—” Riley hit the wheel lightly with the heel of her palm a couple of times for emphasis as she searched for a spot in the narrow carpark, “—in this world people—men, women—will be constantly trying to take power from you. Take take take,” she said, roping in the air just beyond the steering wheel. “They’ll use the accoutrements of their profession, or their charm, or their money, or maybe they have a way with words, or they’re tall and can physically stand over you, or any number of things…” She hurried to return to the point that seemed to be slipping away. “But…but dressing power becomes power. You feel power—” Riley drew the invisible spirit of power up along her diaphragm between her breasts with a roll of her hand, straightening her posture and honing her focus so that she resumed with a purposeful, taut composure. “You find that that power once able to be stolen from you now resides in you, swirls around in you, like water in a little rockpool, water from the ocean. It belongs to you in a sense—it’s ready to use, flowing, flowing.” Riley’s hand circled once or twice more, trailed leisurely after a sensation that regretfully withered at being observed, then landed softly on the park brake.
“Is that how you sold so many houses?” Pearl asked quietly, sincerely. “By dressing well?”
“Yes. Yes that is exactly how I sold so many houses,” Riley replied. She broke from her glazed stare out the window to look directly into Pearl’s eyes, now flickering with the rare abandon of excitement. It was a lie, but an exhilarating, freeing lie that felt sharp and effervescent, like a sword cutting through water, and was also somehow truer than a more responsible answer like “Well ther’re a lot of other factors to consider Pearl…” or “And a lot of sacrifice and tension and hard work.” She felt she had done well, and the added revelation of her niece’s apparent admiration for her work was an extra charge of serotonin—she was never sure how much of her life was passed on by her sister, or in what kind of a brush it was painted in. It hadn’t been many seconds however before Pearl was looking down, then away, out the window and the faint, transient gleam of excitement had receded back to gloom.
“Whatever, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They probably won’t fit me by the time the holidays are over. Not at this rate,” and she pinched disdainfully at a roll of tummy fat above her seatbelt.
“Well, sometimes you just gotta stay positive, Pearl my dear.”
Riley was touching up her makeup in the rear-view mirror. When she had finished she reached and gave Pearl’s hair a few encouraging strokes before snapping shut her compact and with a forceful, triumphant flick of her wrist threw it back into her purse.
“Now let’s shop.”
Riley watched Pearl gouge at another piece of mushroom stuck within the cheesy folds of her pizza and wipe it onto the jumble of others, thick and red with tomato sauce in a napkin. She closed her eyes behind her sunglasses and kneaded the pain above her brow. The mall was overloaded, and the sudden shock of noise and movement and light was like a slow, swelling dust storm that forced her to shelter in the corner booth of a randomly selected eatery along the strip. For the past several weeks she been trying to ease herself into a state of complete unaccountability and luxury, the way she remembered her Christmas holidays as a child, but instead found herself carrying around the persistent nausea of anxiety and dread at being judged, at falling out of utility to the world at large and, she realised with the same sensation as having a meringue turn out to taste like a sulphurous fart in her mouth, her childhood holidays had been attendant with the same intractable sense of restlessness. Nothing had changed. Taking Pearl shopping was the first responsibility beyond eating and sleeping she had been presented with since applying a rolling pin to her answering machine and having to clean up the tangled, brittle mess on her kitchen counter.
“Can I have your burger?”
Riley slid her plate forward and leaned in toward Pearl. She took off her sunglasses and with her chin in her palm playfully tapped the fingernail of her pinkie against a tooth as she watched the girl first remove the top bun, then analyse the contents of the burger for something unwanted.
“There’s no mushroom.”
Pearl didn’t answer. She turned around in her chair and was watching the small television suspended over the corner of the bar.
“You like Madonna?”
“I can’t hear it,” said Pearl.
Riley, feeling on a roll, flagged a passing waiter and asked as sweetly as she could to have it turned up. When the young man faltered she gave the slightest nod toward her niece who, she realised, was busy again dissecting her burger. Riley wasn’t young enough or trendily-dressed enough to be a fan. There was a faint, shimmering mist of perspiration that seemed to be concentrated above the waiter’s lip and beneath his eyes, and on his neck there was a conspicuous array of little brown moles dotting his pale skin—something Riley had before observed to be co-morbid with indecisiveness and nervousness and faint, mist-like sweating. She had the strong impression that she was at that moment being bent over the table and screwed.
“Forget about it,” she said, and the young waiter made a couple of strange, dithering throat noises before taking off. “Pornographic anyway,” she added quietly to herself. She groaned and with eyes closed rubbed slowly again at her brow. Expand, contract. Expand, contract. Expand. She reached slowly, blindly for her handbag beside her.
“Yes, sweetie?” She peeled open the foil of an aspirin with her teeth as she poured the remainder of her niece’s soda into her own glass.
“Thanks for all the clothes.”
Riley gently spat away the foil and sought out the girl through the blare and throb of her headache. Pearl had pushed what was left of the burger aside and was looking with a half-concealed expression of childlike distrust, of worry at her aunt.
“My pleasure, darlin’,” she said, and a thrill of warmth flowed in her palm and up through her arm to her heart as she held her soft face in her hand.
“Jesus, Riley, your hand is freezing.”
The sensation puttered and wisped away.
“Don’t say that sweetie, your mom wouldn’t like it,” she said as she gave her straw a couple of light taps on the edge of the glass before discarding it in the basket of fries and downing the tablet and the soda in one go. She gently groaned then burped as she put the glass down.
“Hey, don’t burp!” Pearl laughed.
“Ah, whoever smelt it dealt it!” she retorted, pointing.
“What?” Pearl bridled, “you can’t say that!”
“It doesn’t make sense!”
“Half past nine?”
“What?” Pearl broke into giggles. Putting her head down she quietly slapped the edge of the table with her fingers, snorting and chuckling.
“So,” Riley said when it seemed as though the fit had subsided.
“So,” said Pearl.
“You ready to go home?”
“No. I want some dessert first, then we can go.”
“Hey! You owe me after being gone for so long.”
“Yes. Yes I suppose I do.”
Riley reached over the couch to the adjacent booth and grabbed a couple of the leather-bound menus.
“Mamma mia,” she said as she worked her way down the dessert menu, down the prices.
Pearl licked her lips as she read, and Riley couldn’t tell if this was an unconscious response or an expression of concentration or what, but she giggled to herself because whatever it was, it was very unlike her in an amusing way.
“What has your mother said about me in the mean time? Anything?”
“What makes you ask?”
“I’m just wondering. Has she mentioned me recently?”
“She just said that you were working too much—”
Riley nodded with quiet, relieved approval.
“—and that you were probably going to end up like someone-I-can’t-remember. She wants you to go to church.”
“Just not her church.”
“How well did you know Judge Korbin?”
Riley smiled and gave a brief, perplexed chuckle through her nose. “He was my mother’s father.”
“Yeah, I know that, but like, how well did you know him? Was he a millionaire when you were a kid? Did you do stuff together?”
“Oh. Like what kind of stuff?”
“Did you ever go fishing?”
“Fishing? No, I…” Riley pretended to search her memory, though she knew she had never been fishing in her life. “…I don’t remember.”
“No, no camping.”
“Did you ever get to go out on a boat? Out on the ocean?”
Riley’s tired gaze hovered around the girl’s face, her eyes.
“Where did you live?” Pearl pressed.
“What do you mean?”
“When you were a kid, like when you were my age, where did you live? Did you live in one of Judge Korbin’s mansions?”
“No. No we had our own house.”
Pearl began to ask another question when Riley extended her arm to a waiter, this time one with a long hazelnut ponytail and tan skin, one with a look of muted indifference, but the motion got away from her somehow and ended as a very affected-looking unravelling, like a woman in a painting mid-swoon on a chaise. The waiter took out his pad and pen.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes, we’d like some dessert,” Riley said, and Pearl squealed.
“I would like…” Pearl began, slowly passing a finger down the list with the exact and indulgent air of someone who had ordered from every dessert menu of every restaurant worth a damn. “A crème Suzette!” She slapped the menu shut and the resultant gust blew the hair from an ecstatic, wide-eyed grin. The waiter may have looked nonplussed though it was hard to tell, and Pearl let out a manic laugh to let everyone within five tables know she meant business.
“Relaax, Aunt Riley, I’ll pay you back when I’m a millionaire judge!”
Riley turned to the waiter “Do you have crêpe Suzette?”
“We do. But I’m afraid I’ll need to see some ID.”
“For a crêpe?”
“Technically it has alcohol.”
Riley took her wallet from her bag and handed him her driver’s license. The waiter examined it.
“Hey, Drew!” he called, brandishing the card and the pale, nervous waiter with the neck moles looked up from where he was folding napkins at a hoosier. “It is her!”
“Sorry,” he said, turning back, “we just thought we recognised you.”
The young man blushed under Riley’s stare and the illusion of imperturbability turned out to be a sham. He looked, in fact, like a boy she remembered in her tenth-grade history class who had fallen asleep and then woke with the whole class, including the teacher, laughing at the inadvertent erection that had ballooned beneath his shorts.
“You…you look way younger in person than on the posters,” he managed to choke—a lie, because the photographer she used to commission was also a master editor, and was brutal with the airbrush, on her orders.
“Just get the pancake,” Riley said, and snatched back her card.
Pearl let out a long, vicious cackle after what she probably considered an appropriate allowance of time. “What a loser!”
“Pearl, please,” Riley said, but despite herself she smiled as she leaned back, because the girl’s sudden spirit was delightful to watch, like a flower opening itself to sunlight in a timelapse, or like a seagull screaming, then shitting on the cardigan of some self-important person stepping from a convertible. But the laughter on her face was being replaced now by something else as she scanned the restaurant. She was looking at the people sitting at their tables, the couples, and the waiters confabbing, arguing. A waitress waited for a dispute between a waiter and the chef to end, and she was hoping there would be something left of the chef’s patience to appeal to, because she had problems of her own. She had a foot resting bent at the ankle against her other foot, and she twisted the fingers holding her black notebook into knots as she waited. Pearl now was watching the chef through the pass-through, shouting down a cook; the drama passing down the line. Her gaze passed on, around the restaurant, until it settled on a smartly-dressed young man just visible in the bathroom hall. He had excused himself from his table and now was grinning, chatting with a girl there against the wall while his date waited, sipped her wine, waited.
“Are…are people really going to stand over me? Like, when I’m older?”
Riley studied her face.
“What do you mean?”
“Like what you said. They’ll use their recruitments to take power away from me. Does that happen to everyone?”
She laughed. “It won’t happen to you. I won’t let it. Just trust me,” she said, and petted Pearl’s cheek.
The magpies are calling. They are, Ephyra had decided long ago, speaking in some kind of code. The shrill tones grope at the rising silence, sending it back, and they are cooperating in some other understood task beyond our ken. It is, seen end-to-end, perfect symphony and clarity. One calls, the other completes, and together the noise like a single, sparkling sheet rolls out in a shape like the earth’s camber seen from space—eternally, necessarily, enormously. The air is clear, dust swirls in the milk of the risen sun, and Millie jumps from a log.
“Be careful!” she wanted to say, but she had only the energy to sit.
Her father was pressing through the bush, carrying the chainsaw in one hand. He paused, looked back.
The smell of the early morning forest was the full, wholesome smell of soil. Of mould and rich, brown rot and the life that in its millions of different ways presses through it.
The oils of the leaves steeping the ground in its kerosene. Mentholating it. A complexity of other things she couldn’t see or name. The bark beneath her hands was soft and dry and shredded like a tissue that had survived the wash. Millie was tightroping across the log toward her. She leapt, stood poised in a gesture that threatened the unveiling of something dark and wonderful, then sat beside her.
“You look tired,” she said.
“I didn’t sleep.”
“Why did you come out?”
“Because I don’t—” Ephyra began. She faltered. The mistake had surged her forward into thought, and she hung there for a moment then glided wonderfully back.
Her fatigue, her hunger, her sudden apathy.
She felt drunk. She draped herself across her niece.
“Because,” she said, and kissed the woollen shoulder.
Millie, of course, was thinking about her grandmother. There was a question hanging there between them, something unusually pregnant and present. Ephyra let it swell untouched and sighed.
“I think Grandad wants to keep moving.”
“Grandad wants to keep moving…” she echoed.
They had been looking for logs it seemed forever.
“Have you been here?” said Millie.
“Here. Right here in this spot.”
“I’m here now.”
“No, you know what I mean. Before. Like, before this.”
Ephyra dragged her eyes out from heavy lids and sent them slowly around her, and the world impressed itself on her as a swift, dreadful, incalculable mess. She looked down at her shoes.
“It’s hard to say, darling.”
“I feel like I’ve been here. I’m getting crazy déjà vu. Don’t you hate it when that happens?”
“Because you don’t know whether you should do something different, like wave your hands or jump up. Or just see how long it can go.”
“Yeah.” Ephyra pushed the end of a stick into a leaf between her shoes. In the shadow it folded, then sunk inward and made a smooth, glistening pocket in the earth.
“What would you do if you could see the future, Aunt Ephyra?”
She thought instantly about her and Tom in New York. Unpacking boxes together. Buying things for their apartment. She wanted to see if she was happy, if he was killing it. The prospect of moving forward made her shudder. Into it; into that undoable thing. The past she could handle. It had happened. There was no failure in the past, no disappointment. Only fate. Fate fate fate. Here was fate playing out right now, she thought. In these little dots of ants or aphids. These things, whatever they were, were fulfilling prophesy. Each movement and tone, each thought, it was all locking together as in one huge grid, each piece dependent on the other. She was the pulley in a zip uniting worlds of opposites behind her. Every mistake she had ever made was divinely sculpted and set in place. But somewhere here, she thought, somewhere right now fate was mimicking, was mirroring her. Her will was closing over the entire assignment like a fog, was doing something entirely magical with the involute, infolded stuff of space and time and creaturedom together, and godlike, creating the world anew.
Her father sounded a quick, shrill note that rattled through the bush and Millie jumped to her feet.
She dashed off happily and Ephyra watched her father nod distinctly into the bush before turning and carrying on.
“What do you think makes a best friend?” asked Millie as they walked. “You can only choose one: a good sense of humour,” she said, marking the qualities out with her fingers, “a lot of intelligence, or three…” Here she stopped, looked down at the fallen tree before her, her palm with its two fingers still held out before her.
“What’s wrong with this one, Grandad?”
“Lousy,” he said abruptly, without turning. And so it was. Millie crouched before it, using the two qualities of a best friend to lift a flap of bark and inspect the catacombs of a termite infestation. She felt the fragile edge of one of the layers.
“It looks like baklava,” she said.
“What was the third?” said Ephyra.
“Or third,” said Millie, suddenly springing up, “or third…what do you think?”
“Or third,” Ephyra said, continuing on, “a good compatibility.”
“That doesn’t really fit in with what I was saying though,” said Millie.
“A good sense of humour, a lot of intelligence, or good compatibility, that’s right isn’t it?”
“Well the first two are specific and then you went into being general.”
“Yes,” said Ephyra, wandering, swinging her feet shiftlessly over the floor of the forest. “You’re right.” She gazed up, up at where the old jarrahs met the sky in a shower of leaves. She breathed, held the cool, clean air for a moment, then let go.
“Well what is the most important for a best friend to have?”
“Compatibility. Two humans must be compatible with each other. Their psychology must fit into each other. The thing one is lacking, the other must make up for.”
“Who is your best friend then? Is it me?”
Ephyra laughed. “Sure, of course. I’m your best friend, right?”
Millie cringed. “Ohh…this is awkward.”
“Is Tom a best friend?”
“Yes, Tom is a best friend. A kind of best friend.”
“But not exactly?”
“Because you have sex?”
They stopped walking. Her father was inspecting a log, thinking something through besides. Something she couldn’t see. He crouched and lit a cigarette.
“That makes a difference, yes. It’s one of the things.”
“What are some other things? Does he have a sense of humour?”
“Yes, he has a sense of humour.”
“Is he intelligent?”
“Are you compatible?”
The chainsaw began with a roar and sang out; high, nasal and coarse. Millie was waiting for an answer. Ephyra smiled and wandered around a little, though there was nowhere to go.
At the house Ephyra shut herself in the spare bedroom. It resembled little of her old room. There were paintings on the walls instead of her posters, it was a calm pink instead of a dark blue, and the bed was different; it was clean, straight and firm, undisturbed, with a faint sheen of dust on the cover. All of it together gave her a strangely pleasing sense of anonymity, as though she were the no one for whom the room was intended. Otherwise the house was troubling her with the keen, imposing and impersonal aspect of some unsolved dilemma that would not be forgotten.
To exacerbate the feeling, she had set her laptop up at the desk facing the window, whose blinds were drawn, and the book she was meant to be reviewing was open beside it. But it was long, and dense, and domineering, and said nothing much about anything, and she knew the writer, or had at least gotten acquainted with him through two or three interactions at different events, and the pressure of being gracious and circumspect about the book’s shortcomings was not something she was used to.
She parted the curtain and looked out at Millie wandering the paddock. She had her arms folded, was twisting herself slightly one way then the other and saying things as she passed her gaze over the flowers, the mushrooms, the rocks, stopping here and there to touch, to see, to poke. Twisting. Twisting. A breeze curled out and the forest beyond seemed weakened for a moment, alert and protective. A huge bank of bold white cloud that made her niece look miniature was unravelling slowly. Her father was chopping the wood beside the house; she could hear the pieces splinter and topple; heavy, hollow. The inquisitive, brooding sounds the hens made as they circled and watched. She enjoyed the rhythm, and it was something that had remained with her over the years and would probably never leave. It was distinct and lyrical and profoundly satisfying. When she was a girl she would beat out the rhythm of the chopping on the mailbox with the backs of her heels. Onto the metal numbers nailed to the plank. One. One, one-two. One. One, one-two. One. One, one-two. One. And the noise would clatter down the red empty road, between the bush swarming in on either side.
Outside, a white arc of light flashed silently around the face of the advancing cloud, and Ephyra watched for a while, expectant and tired, hopeful for them, as though they were at that moment conjuring the next miracle, labouring it into existence.
“These clouds are always full of lightning,” she said and yawned, though she didn’t know why she had said it. Full of magic she had wanted to say. She closed the curtains.
She stretched out on the bed, and spread her hands over its firmness.
She watched the man falling. Elegantly from a point she hadn’t cared to note or search out among the other darkness. A nowhere place—somewhere in the drone of the night’s spangled, crystal silence. It made her shudder to watch him. It was a horrible thing, a thing of violence, in the way the gentle, soundless breach of a whale’s fluke through a bed of black water can be violent—unwitnessed, dormant with the prospect of something larger. The change was electric, irreversible. It made her shudder and shudder. The passing called into question the place and movement of everything near and distant, everything inside and outside. It was absurd and irreversible. His shoes touched the lattice, matter obeyed, he sunk, slowly, perfectly and gracefully. A single, light note rose and her scream was bound tightly round and round, was stuck inside her.
It had grown dark. Somewhere distant Tate was ratcheting out his high, nervous plaint. The storm flickered mutely against the curtains. And there was a murmur. Mother’s room. Ephyra went into the ensuite and tied her hair back in the mirror, then eased herself onto the tub’s edge, against the wall. Heavy and dream-weary, she closed her eyes and listened.
There was sobbing. It stopped and someone spoke. A man. She took a guess. Shadurnaph. The voice had the lazy, deep and rolling quality to it she recognised. A woman’s voice responded. Ophiel. Not so melodic. Kanquandi maybe. She brought her ear closer to the wall. The conversation hummed on for a while in the emotionally indeterminate, low way that she was acquainted with, with no sobbing, even and ordinal, and that was it. Someone was rising from their seat beside her mother’s bed and making their respectful exit. In the hall Melanie was negotiating on price. Ephyra rose from the tub and discreetly followed the footsteps travelling down the hall. The two guests, following her sister’s unusually ornate and perfumed procession passed quietly by the door, their shadows passed, and Ephyra opened it a little to watch a very dark man wearing a boubou exchange faltering, derelict expressions of gratitude with Melanie while his wife stood deferentially by. Her prominent forehead had a sheen which reminded Ephyra of an African savannah, and homey things like cowrie shell necklaces, pastries, a mortar and pestle. But they had a small, expensive-looking security detail. They gave gifts, though she couldn’t see what, and they were ushered out to their car by their men in black.
Ephyra gasped and reeled when something appeared in the crack of the door. She felt drained and weightless in an instant and collapsed into her bed. Millie entered, laughing, and Ephyra closed the sheets over her head. After a moment her niece lifted the blanket and looked in.
“Aunt Ephyraaa,” she called softly. “So—rry.”
“What are you doing?”
“No, tonight, what are you doing this evening? Are you going to help Mum and Granddad pick up the gas heater from the neighbour’s house?”
“They’re getting a gas heater?”
“Yes, for Grandma’s room.”
“Do you want to come and be a witch with me then?”
“What does that involve?”
“We’re going to go out into the paddock and watch the storm and make a fire. I’m going to make dhal. We can camp out there in the tent; Mum says it’s okay!”
Ephyra listened to her breathing. In the cove of the blankets, and in the dark, there was something deep and passive and oceanic about it. She slowed her breath to match her niece’s. She drew in, held it for a long while, then sighed.
Ephyra didn’t speak but lay still, and enjoyed the silence. Her head felt filled up with emptiness now, filled up and pleasantly swollen. She closed her eyes.
“Do you ever get scared, Millie?” she asked when the quiet had spread and equalled and they were both inside it. She opened her eyes but against the light her niece’s face was dark and formless, and she felt distant.
“Scared of what?” she whispered. She knelt. Close in, her breath was slightly tannic and she knew her mother had given her sips of the wine. That wine. The other wine. Wine from the goblet. Wine of the virgin.
“Scared of…” Ephyra began. But she didn’t know exactly. Scared of the house. Scared of what was coming. Something was suspended above them all, some aether of madness they were rising up into. It was the thought of it all. All those things inside the layers of the air, swarming, swimming. The conjugation, the discovery as the girl had said of the two worlds, the micro and the macro. There was a bright flash that illuminated the sheets and filled the room with white light for an instant. The goat, unseen, began to cry. They had both gasped quietly. The depth and stillness of the silence had been replaced with a tingling, and like the calm before they both shared in it now—a numb, electric sense; of change, of having been censured and diminished by the power of something infinitely larger.
“O, Ohhh,” Millie sung in a whisper and Ephyra, recognising the tune, laughed.
“O let me, let me weep,
“O let me forever weep, forever, forever, forever weep.
“My eyes no more, no more shall welcome sleep.
“I’ll hide me, I’ll hide me from the sight of day,
“And sigh, sigh, sigh my soul away.”
The goat had stopped its bleating and they waited now for something unsaid. It seemed impossible to move. After several long seconds a deep, droning bellow of thunder that didn’t sound like thunder undulated out and caused a high-pitched vibration to trickle through the joints and tendons, the cabinets and studs and panels of the house.
“That was a big one,” said Millie.
In the foyer Pearl took off her knit cap. She shook the snow from it, from her shoulders and hair, then lightly tamped the white dust into the carpet with the tip of her shoe, and it became translucent and disappeared. She could hear her mother’s shouting somewhere in the house, and crying. She went swiftly up the stairs with her shopping bags. In her bedroom she dropped the bags and parted her curtain a little to peer out along the yard’s broad white carpet of snow, beyond the black iron gate at her aunt sitting in her car. She watched her contemplate something—the interior light was still on from their goodbye. She was thinking something through, staring at her hands in her lap. The car door opened and she walked to the tall gate, raised a hand, but paused, muttered something and turned back around. Pearl watched as she stepped back into the car and drove slowly away. She drew the curtain and closed her bedroom door.
In the foyer Pearl took off her knit cap. She shook the snow from it, from her shoulders and hair, then lightly tamped the white dust into the carpet with the tip of her shoe, and it became translucent and disappeared. She could hear her mother’s shouting somewhere in the house, and crying. She went swiftly up the stairs with her shopping bags. In her bedroom she dropped the bags and parted her curtain a little to peer out along the yard’s broad white carpet of snow, beyond the black iron gate at her aunt sitting in her car. She watched her contemplate something—the interior light was still on from their goodbye. She was thinking something through, staring at her hands in her lap. The car door opened and she walked to the tall gate, raised a hand, but paused, muttered something and turned back around. Pearl watched as she stepped back into the car and drove slowly away. She drew the curtain and closed her bedroom door.
Pearl took the photograph together with the receipt, stood silent in a moment of review before carefully pinning the two beside each other on the collage, near the right edge. She stood back a little and surveyed the updated mural, examining its form first directly, then peripherally; looking slightly away to get a more general sense of its shape and impression. She returned to the grinning appendage at the right edge, taking a step forward to cringe at her round cheeks, at the slightly fisheye effect of the camera on her nose. Her naiveté irritated her. Beside her was the woman who for no reason would cut contact with her. Would ignore her phone calls. Would make her cry.
After a few moments of silent glaring Pearl felt the contemptuous frown on her face waver then break, and she let out a slight, relieved giggle. Because those two were happy; unyieldingly happy and perpetually happy, and she loathed to be left out. Attempting to smother such an occasion as Aunt Riley coming back with what were now her tenuous, tattered threads of indignation seemed more childish than she knew she had license for.
She was in a good mood now, and with the sudden buoyancy of this conclusion Pearl skipped back to the three large bags waiting on the carpet. She reached slowly into the first and felt the lush, yielding velvet of a dress’s peplum between her thumb and two fingers. Her first instinct was to draw it out from the bag in one elegant motion and stand and twirl around with it pressed to her shoulders, because she had received the impression from certain TV specials that that was apropos. But instead she slid a hand beneath the dress and wiggled it slowly out like a black pancake and, searching for the least cluttered space on her quilt, flopped it down.
She stood before it, taking an oblique stance to remove her shadow. From the bag she pulled out a slender leather belt, which her Aunty had bought to replace the satin bow waistband the dress had come with, and placed it across the belt loops, admiring the delicate, spotless brass buckle against the black. She folded the bag carefully along its creases and flattened it out, then slipped it beneath her bed. The next bag had another little black dress, though with a hemline just above the knee, a white peter pan collar, thick matelassé fabric, and a simple, pleated skirt. Pearl repeated the same caring procedure with the bag and stored it atop the other after laying the dress down on the bed. She brought the second dress to overlap the first, folding the left sleeve over itself to reveal the simple, lace-collared neckline of the other. There were black suede ballet flats with brass-tipped bow accents; a fine, gold belcher chain drop necklace with an onyx horn pendant; a layer necklace, gold; a simple box chain in sterling silver. There was also a long, playfully elaborate latticed silver cocktail ring woven through with yellow glass diamonds, which Riley had insisted was beyond her age, but Pearl had a craving for something silly and unthought-out. Another smile broke across her face and she slipped on the ring, then strode to the mirror where she held her arm limply, elegantly beside her, standing hipshot in imitation of a model’s finishing pose on a catwalk.
The door burst open.
“Fuck!” her sister shouted.
Pearl hadn’t noticed the downstairs argument traveling incrementally closer, it had become as monotonous and understood as the lines on a highway, but now it was upon her. Her older sister had slammed the door shut and locked it, and her mother was now hammering at it with the soft part of a fist.
Her sister repeated her curse, though softer, then giggled gently, drunkenly under her breath. She walked carefully, slowly backwards, almost stumbling in her large boots amid the things that at one point or another had made their home on the carpet. Satisfied that the door was strong enough to hold her mother she sighed and opened the window, where she sat casually, half a leg dangling out over sill, the other drawn up toward her tightly against a breast. Pearl watched as she dug awkwardly in her pocket and pulled out a soft, crumpled pack of cigarettes from her tight black jeans. Their mother conjured a few more threats, powered out with the remaining chords of a voice shouted hoarse, then whimpered and stomped away. Downstairs, and through the open window the girls could hear the muffled sobs of a woman with entirely too much on her plate, and there was the familiar, spreading sense of calm and completion.
“What happened?” said Pearl, and her sister made a sound like a bark, deep and guttural, followed by a whoop as she caught her breath.
“Jesus Pearl you scared the shit out of me!” she screamed, and threw her lighter. She felt with the ball of her thumb between her breasts at her heartbeat for a moment and shut her eyes.
“What happened?” Pearl repeated.
“Nothing,” she snapped. “How’s that bitch Aunt Riley? Still acting like America’s Most Wanted?”
“She’s not a bitch, and you’re not allowed to smoke in here.”
“Since when did you care?”
“I have asthma! And it’s freezing in here! Get out!”
“No,” she said, taking another drag before resting the cigarette on the outer sill, the lit end half-edged out into the still winter air. “I mean care about Riley.”
Pearl returned to the dresser and pretended to resume some private task of selecting or reordering. “Veda, she’s not that bad,” she said casually, and tried deftly to slip the ring from her finger. Veda’s eyes narrowed to a point, the way a magnifying glass narrows the sun’s glare to a dart of light, and Pearl felt it setting fire to her hair. In one motion her sister leapt from the windowsill and was upon her, and Pearl screamed. They fell to the ground with a thud and Pearl could feel the familiar, sickly, enveloping sense of being winded.
“Veda I can’t breath!” she gasped.
“What’s this! What’s this!” Veda hissed as she grappled for sister’s hands. Overpowered, Pearl yielded and her sister held her wrists together between their two faces.
“Open your goddamn hands!”
Pearl uncurled her fingers and shut her eyes as the ring dropped and hit her nose, falling amid her hair sprawled beneath her on the carpet. Veda snatched it up and pinched it before her eyes.
“She’s bribing you, you little fool!” Veda pushed against Pearl’s chest to sit on her belly, and she inspected the ring.
“Veda! I have…I have…asthma!” Pearl wheezed. “Get off, please!”
Veda stood and Pearl rolled to her side and curled, blinking to allow a small flurry of tears to pass.
Fondling the ring, Veda stood beside her sister’s bed and took in the two dresses laid deliberately out along the junk, the large, Christmas-themed shopping bag with the conspicuously-printed name of the fashion retailer stamped across it, then crouched, looked beneath the bed at the others.
“Wow,” she said to herself, standing once again, shaking her head slowly at her sister writhing on the carpet. She sauntered back to her seat on the windowsill and brought the ring close enough to scrutinise. Silky grey whorls of smoke drifted brightly out into the air as she puffed gently on the cigarette hanging from her lips, and she tried the ring out on a couple of her fingers, then flung it casually out of the window.
“No!” Pearl shouted, and scrambled up to run and look past her sister at the undulating waste of snow glistening and glittering like fresh mounds of white dough rising here and there from the shadows of a cold—pitifully cold—winter night. Tears came to Pearl’s eyes and she wept silently against her sister’s knee.
“It’s a tough world, Pearl,” said Veda. “Get used to it.”
The pipes behind the wall shuddered loudly then gave a squeak as Pearl turned the water off. Undressing, she slipped gently in. When the pleasure of the water’s warmth glittering along her skin and tucking her in began to fade, she put on her headphones.
“Eel et un plaiseer de voo-revoir.”
Very good! Once more.
“Eel et un plaiseeer de voo-revoir!” Pearl chimed.
After a moment Pearl paused the tape. There was a slight, vibratory drone coming from somewhere. She waited to hear it again but it was gone.
“Commo eh Zsholie?” she continued. “Co-mo eh Zshoolie?”
She heard it again. She took off the headphones and listened. It was the faint reverberation of something; a kind of pressure.
“Hello?” she said. The pressure increased, the tone of the word returned to her—like an echo, like the sensation of speaking into a funnel. She gave a hum, then stopped to listen. After a brief, breathless delay it returned, she could hear it—it was in her head, but it was just like there was someone else repeating the exact sound. She tried it again, longer this time:
Pearl waited. Several seconds lapsed, and she went to put on her headphones when the voice picked up the sound. The light dimmed for a moment and a gust sent a horrible, low whistle through the house, the draft brushing gently across her fingertips. Pearl lay several long seconds motionless in the bath.
“Who are you?” she called.
After the long, foolish silence that followed, Pearl replaced her headphones and listened to the rest of the tape quietly.
Pearl found Finn in the living room. He was on the carpet playing cards near the gentle heat of the fire. Or else, he was playing with the cards—what he was playing was not so clear. The deck was spread in a chaotic semi-circle before him. With childlike deliberation between each turn, and with a little prognostic finger held up at the ready he selected cards from the jumble to turn over, either to add to a stack he held in his left hand, or to simply turn back over. Tempted at first to simply slump into the armchair by the fire with her wet hair draped across the armrest to dry, she allowed the thread of some irritation at seeing her little brother so unperturbed, so blithely content in his own small company to pull intuitively where it led.
“Finn, have you brushed your teeth?”
“Wah!” he shuddered, and abandoning his game and the deck of cryptically selected cards together, ran to take shelter in the crook of the leather club chair opposite the fireplace.
“No!” came the muffled response, and in a series of preparatory, heaving motions he sent his legs into the air, a heel knocking askew the shade of the floor lamp, whose imbalance caused the shadows in its meagre reach to rock and flex in diminishing arcs. The other foot landed flat against the wall with a small thud, the sole of the shoe dragging to leave a dark, ribbed, and permanent-looking imprint against the white.
“Finn! You’re putting marks on the wall!” Pearl said. Finn looked experimentally, proudly out at his sister from an upturned face buried awkwardly sideways in the armchair’s seat, and she rushed forward and grabbed a leg dangling away from the wall there to wrench off a small shoe. She tossed it aside and began with the other, wrangling loose one of the several unnecessary knots he had made with the laces. He continued looking up and giggled, revealing a broad, milk-toothed grin.
“I don’t have to brush my teeth!” he teased in a mysterious tone. With a tug Pearl sent him tumbling back down across the armchair, where he went limp like a rag-doll and flumped himself down onto the carpet.
“Why? Why don’t you need to brush your teeth?” Pearl glared down at him with arms akimbo, the way she had seen her mother many times before do the same.
“Because…” he began feebly, and aping with slow, breathy, affected gestures one, or any of the dying cowboys he had seen in his Eastwood films, he entreated her, his final confidante, to come closer for the disclosure of some intimate secret.
“Just tell me,” she demanded, unmoved.
“Because…I already did,” he confessed with dragging, torturous breaths, and with that gave up his ghost, rolling his head with an operatic groan to the side, his eyes shut.
“I don’t believe you.” Pearl crouched down over her dead brother to poke her nose around his lips, at which point the body spontaneously reanimated to belch its lung’s final store of air directly into her face. Pearl shot up, masking her nose and mouth with clenched fingers.
“Finn brush your teeth, now!” she screamed, and scrambling between the tent of her legs he ran off, giggling hysterically.
After a long moment in which Pearl took quiet stock of the mess left to her (besides the cards there were crayons and dozens of scribbled loose leafs, coloured pencils and their shavings, lego pieces), she padded over to the television and turned it on to Christmas commercials.
Brooke Shields. Beautiful Brooke Shields and her beautiful, smiling almond eyes.
Pearl lifted the beer can on top of the television set and gave it a swirl and a probing couple of sniffs before taking a sip, enjoying the commercial.
She corrected the lampshade then turned off the lamp. Reaching behind the couch, she flicked off the power at the wall. Pearl paused. Switching things off at the power was a cost-cutting measure, an ingrained habit from the days of living in the old house, though until that moment she hadn’t questioned whether it was a standing order. She recalled the threat that had accompanied the original edict—it was Easter, and she was seven, and her mother had decided after spending so much money on Easter eggs that there would be no Christmas presents unless they had ‘learned’ to live within their means by the holidays. And that meant switching things off at the power, including, she found when Christmas had eventually rolled around that year, the lights of the Christmas tree, whose shadowy, strangely dispirited presence in the corner of their living room had evoked for Pearl the same kind of quiet embarrassment as the dumbwaiter here, in their new house. Something in them each pointed with frail, ghostly fingers at a function or ritual long since despaired of assuming their original value. The dumbwaiter led to darkness—to an apparently disused corner of the basement blocked in with old furniture and picture frames and piles of old clothes and cobwebs. Her father had let her see down its well the week before last, when they first moved in. He had held her up while he shone a torch down there, and the dust that had been roused by her tugging on the cords made the shaft look as though winter had descended there too, and Pearl was quickly overwhelmed, though it was clear from what she did see that it had long ago become a receptacle for old carpets and other shadowy, fur-covered bric-a-brac like the cluttered back room of a thrift-shop. Her father had given the cords a few good pulls too but the wooden car below wouldn’t budge. And just as well, Pearl thought—the smell that had reached up that shaft was reason enough to keep the thing interred indefinitely. It was the first truly ugly part of the house she had been introduced to, though one could only assume it had had its use at some point, when the house was new, and unwieldy bundles of linen, or dirty clothes, or whatever had needed regular, speedy dispatch to the basement.
The brittle and moulting vinyl Christmas tree at the old house too had been the imprint of something else, though Pearl felt unqualified to say what. She knew somehow it was crass to associate it uniquely with the first thing that came to mind, namely the birth of the Christ, and vaguely recalled that other things were understood to be at play—the pagans, pantheism, commercialism, and so the thing was as vague and tentative as their own commitment to honour it year after year, to erect the tree and adorn it—fat white men in cozy-looking fur-lined suits, chains of coloured crêpe paper and sequinned styrofoam balls she and Finn had made together in her room one Thanksgiving. The turning off of the Christmas lights had been for Pearl the first step toward her now almost complete indifference toward the Christmas season. It had demystified gradually, and she felt like she had when she realised the daughter of her mother’s friend, whom she had known since kindergarten, had no qualities worth imitating, and their friendship from the beginning had been purely incidental. The months would pass in quiet anticipation, with much fantasising and mental tricks to make the remaining time shorter, like feigning enthusiasm for chores and forcing oneself to avoid the calendar for as long as one could, and then the date would arrive and it would be as patently the same as every other Christmas, just like Dana’s visit would be the same as every other—with her hogging the computer and eating the mint and chocolate flavoured cookies in the pantry that were only meant as special treats. Still, it was something missing in the new living room with its old, strange furniture. She would have welcomed it secretly, and she did wait for it to turn up each trip her father made from the old house with Uncle Blake, but she suspected now it had been thrown out, and she didn’t know how to feel about that.
Pearl sighed and felt at once the strain of the last few weeks dissolving into a listless and sneakingly anxious contemplation of the fortnight to come. And school after that. Sitting cross-legged amid the cards she raked them in toward her slowly, forming a windrow that might have been collected with a few coordinated sweeps of her hand had she not decided instead to float backward; luxuriously as though plunging trancedly back-first into a swell of water, her arms trailing languidly out before her to land behind her head, where they swung gradually along the carpet out to her sides, purely as the unconscious mechanics of her body dictated. She dropped her head to the side, unfocussed eyes absorbing the blather and blare of the television and with her mouth slightly agape she tried tuning herself to the same principle that had brought her arms supine at her sides, her fingers curled. That unconscious, unbreathing nothing that was like death without the prejudice of being unliving, and which resigned the duty of acknowledging each thought for its correctness or incorrectness, each inner movement, and so reduced their weight to that of the snowflakes, which floated, or sunk, or swept by in gusts heedless of her silent, stupid observation.
On the television Santa Claus was flying.
Which reminded her of energy.
Which reminded her of power.
Which reminded her of money, and the inheritance, which had been more or less a closed topic, and she was yet to discover whether they were on balance richer than they had been, which had been the real question for her. She had never bothered to correct her classmate’s presumptions that they were wealthier. Living in a big, old, expensive-looking house in a new neighbourhood had kicked up a bunch of intrigue at school, and her friends treated her with a fresh, wide-eyed kind of regard that bordered on deference. Pearl welcomed it with a floating, vaguely imperious air, resisting the natural image of a girl suddenly imposed with, thrust upon by, the fact of being the great-granddaughter of a federal judge. In truth the whole event had been so sudden and strange, and the only thing she could grasp of it was that she was expected herself to understand it all, to wear the new situation the way she now realised an adult must wear the situations that are thrust upon them.
Here, she thought, was the now.
I am Pearl of the now.
Then, those few weeks ago, that was the then, and I was Pearl no-one, and had I tried to see the now from over there, it would have looked the same as the before-then. The before-then and the then were the same, and so it could be deduced that the yet-to-come, the now, would be the same.
In an eerie sense that only now began to settle, in the first real silence since it had been announced that she had a great-grandfather, and that he was dead, and that there was a such thing as an inheritance, the future seemed to be something that could in fact be indeterminate, like the flowing of water, and not the beating of one’s head against a wall, and the new now was more like a drowsy, shimmering type of dream, without the hard edges and shallow, familiar cavities of the old. It made Pearl excited, and scared.
There were boxes, and cupboards, and rooms, and rooms that led to rooms, like in a dream. Dust, wardrobes with moth-eaten suits and old shoes in them. In the attic more clothes and furniture, several boardgames and a box of records, as well as an old 8mm projector, though with no films. Several mornings before school had been livened by searching through the kitchen pantry, laughing at the outmoded designs of cans of peaches and boxes of cereal and other things some two, three decades old. An old tin of instant coffee had been pried open with a spoon one day to reveal a single, hard brown lump, like a rock or a clod of compact dirt, and Pearl and Finn had teased that they should break it up and serve it to their father one morning on a plate before he went to work, and say it was a special treat.
Judge Korbin’s office was out of bounds. His extant paperwork—dossiers, memoranda, case notes, draft opinions and even, apparently, unfinished manuscripts—was overseen by a man whom her mother said was the ‘estate manager’; appointed, it seemed to Pearl, for the narrow task of cataloguing and carrying boxes of things away in a van.
Mr. Mercadier began each session by sitting down in the kitchen to an espresso made from a machine he himself had brought around as an “early Christmas gift” to replace their percolator. The coffee was variously described by him as ‘splendid’ and ‘just right’ and ‘well done’, sometimes followed by a familiar and very European wink aimed at Pearl when her mother wasn’t looking. Her mother really enjoyed the compliments, enjoyed making the coffee each time, maybe more than Mr Mercadier enjoyed the coffee itself, Pearl thought. He would relax back into one of the wooden chairs and fold one leg over the other and make small talk in his clipped, practiced English, and the earnestness with which he would roll his round-lipped er’s into less favourable words for the sake of brevity, for the sake of her mother, would make her mother smile. A gently squinting, opaque smile that she would sometimes direct in a hurry to the sink or one of the cupboards as she searched for something, but which lingered on her face until well after Mr Mercadier would recover his place in the string of pearls that was his usual small talk. He had an alluringly tactile way of expressing things that would make Pearl want all the more to see the thing it was being described—the rubber tree whose white sap he had held between his fingers while on a trip to the Philippines. The potsherds of an eighteenth-century tureen he had broken as a child the time he had stayed at his Grandmother’s chateau in Val-de-Marne. The hard rime he had with relish shattered and tossed away in pieces from his windshield that morning, and they had landed in the snow like great translucent shards of sugar in the créme chiboust of a Gâteau St Honoré, and the snow layering the roof had rippled in thick waves like marzipan, sloughed away in heaps at the command of his new windshield wand. And Pearl would repeat the crisp, delectable words over and over, holding them in her mouth and in her mind, but they would always change and want to be something else, not the thing that Mr Mercadier had said. And her mother would be the schoolchild, filled up with new information and exotic ideas, and would smile that same, glowing smile that radiated through tired eyes, eyes that had momentarily forgotten their weariness while they studied his face. When the chat was over and he excused himself the spell would end and her mother would seem tired and worn again, would be suddenly discomfited by Pearl’s presence, and she would tell her to finish her breakfast and wait for the bus.
On the television the station played its final newscast; about the Statue of Liberty being almost free from her steel scaffold cage, about black ice, and car collisions, and road closures, and there were several silent messages about missing girls, ones that were new, and ones that had disappeared ages ago, that would be in senior year, would be taking jobs and raising children of their own maybe, but still in the photos were girls like Pearl, and then they played the thing that Pearl waited for—the sign out. The anthem was sung in chorus, unaccompanied, was rich and pure and sorrowful, and she dreamed of being in that little boat there in the wild weather, fighting a storm that would never cease, bravely, breathing the mist of a vast, cold sea and raising the flag of her nation against the wasteland of an endless dark.
“And now the coconut cream,” said Millie, opening the can and pouring it in. “And a bit more veggie stock I reckon.” She took a pinch from the tin and cast it neatly into the pot. Fire from the coals licked at the sides and hissed at a yellow streak of the soup, sending up puffs of the curry, the coconut, the garlic. Ephyra was twisting another papadum with the tongs over the flames; back, forth, under, over, and bubbles emerged, grew and spread a dry white that overtook the beige, and little black holes began; here and there, pierced the pockets like a sickness as the wafer curled. She lay it down atop the others in a bowl.
“It’s good?” asked Millie.
“Yes, we have plenty I think,” said Ephyra. “That was fun.”
“I told you it was!”
Beyond the paddock, behind the hill the storm was crooning, flickering, beating out against the dimness.
“Are you still scared?” Millie asked.
“No,” said Ephyra, and smiled.
“I’m really glad we get to hang out,” said Millie. She laughed nervously and turned toward the fire, as though she were thinking to say something like what she had said, but it had come out strangely, clunkily, and she regretted having undermined a perfect wordless clarity they shared.
“Hm,” said Ephyra. She patted her leg. “You been helping Grandma?”
“Yeah—oh!” she said, suddenly reaching into her jacket pocket. “I forgot!” She pulled out a cluster of small, flat, gold things. “They gave Grandma some chocolates, but Mum said I could have them.”
“Yeah, they’re all the way from Africa,” she said absently, pulling at the foil of one. “Oh no!”
The chocolate inside was bent and stuck to the wrapper, the maker’s imprint smeared and obscured.
“It must have been the fire!” she lamented. She spent a moment longer turning them in her palm, enjoying the gold coruscations that played across her glazed eyes, then with a small push she sent the little chocolates into the fire.
Quietly she watched them smoulder.
“Top secret stuff?” Ephyra prompted.
“No,” said Millie, “I can talk about it if you want.”
“You don’t have to, I know how it is.”
“It was about an election.”
“Pretty boring actually. It was all politics.” Millie raised up onto her knees and stirred the pot for a while. “You know how it is,” she said.
“What’s it like?” asked Ephyra.
She watched her niece process the question, turn it around and around. She was, she supposed, being judicious.
What’s it like…being close to my mother.
What’s it like…being a prodigy.
What’s it like…being a voice for something you can’t see.
“It’s like when you stick your hand into something really cold, into the river when it’s the middle of winter.” She nodded in the direction of the dam, the river, where in the spring they would catch marron and swim. “It’s not a shock, like jumping full-bottle in—it feels really natural, like it couldn’t be any other way; you’re speaking, but it’s also something else. You feel really clever, or sometimes you might feel silly or embarrassed, like you’ve just made all this stuff up and you’re faking it, but also…” Her focus spread again, dissipated. She had stopped stirring. The air was calm, and the fire crackled, and she knelt there, looking up the paddock into the bush. The image was of complete inertness.
“Mahamudra,” she said quietly after a time, and continued stirring. “Exceptional privilege.”
The response unnerved Ephyra a little; its absolute authenticity and maturity, and for not the first time a slight feeling of envy surfaced. It made her think of the long book review still waiting to be written and, as she poked at the coals with a stick of firewood, the man to whom she was indebted, the babbler with the phoney-baloney german syntax that made every sentence a disquisition. She wished she could sum things up with something like ‘Mahamudra’ and be believed.
It was almost completely dark. The lightning in the clouds had taken on another hue, looked like bright gold filaments of lightbulbs flashing, and the last bit of pink was dissolving from the edge of the colossal shape to leave the whole thing dim and blue.
“Fire, fire, fire,” Ephyra said privately.
“Do you know how the world will end?” said Millie. Ephyra gave a small start.
“I…no. Your grandmother never shared much about that stuff with me.”
“Oh,” said Millie, disappointed.
“Once she said—”
Here Millie looked up again, stopped her stirring.
“—that now, and then, and there, are not exactly separated. Not divided in the way that we assume. So technically the end of the world both has happened and is yet to happen.”
“Yes,” Ephyra laughed a small, insincere laugh. “B-theory. One perfectly engineered moment beside another in an infinitely dense arrangement; not following, not leading, just being.”
And we, she thought, we are little tubes; strings of light stretching on and on.
“It poses a lot of problems for morality, I’m not sure how I feel about it,” said Millie.
“Well if I exist now as much as I do, say, three minutes ago, three days ago, if those other me’s are alive, at those points in time, why would…”
“Why would you feel accountable for the things they’ve committed?”
“Right. It’s not me is it? I’m me, right now, this little slice. I’m responsible for me now, because I’m conscious and causally active now, and me at another time…she’s responsible for then, and what I do now, if I were to splash this in your face—” she held up a spoonful of the dhal, “Immediately I would be clear of the guilt. A few moments would go by and I would be several worlds away, a million lightyears away from it. It’s exciting in a way,” she concluded, and laughed. “I can do anything!”
Ephyra felt it then, momentarily. The thrust of time, she inside it, moving as in a great capsule. She was rocketing forward, away from her niece’s last syllable, an impassable gulf was stretching on behind her, where there, through the light, through the blackness of space, she was sitting, listening, and those little fibres, those nerves were poised to reach and touch and make something clear to her.
Hello, she said, as though to herself.
“And then,” Millie repeated, stirring. “And then we’ll exit the way we entered. Tohu wa-bohu.”
“But before then? Atlantis?”
“Yes, yes,” Millie said, bored of the topic, “a world government, everyone on the same page, a perfect synarchy. But it won’t last.”
“Because people don’t like to work together. Groups rule other groups, it’s the way we are. Tribes, clans, families, fraternities. And also, an earthly paradise can only work with a permanent slave class—maybe they’ll think they’re in paradise but it won’t be real. The floating city floats because it’s balancing on the backs of humans,” she said, and let the epigram linger a while. Ephyra wondered what her mother would think of that. It was thrilling to think that Millie was dividing and becoming her own little philosopher, and she tried as well as she could to ignore the prospect of it being rehearsed, something she had heard her say; something she had found in a book.
“How do you see paradise?” Ephyra said. “What does heaven look like?”
“Heaven looks like…” she said, and sent her gaze spontaneously, soberly over the grass beneath her in a slow, soft curve. “Like the way nature would look, if you had only ever seen the inside of an empty room.”
Millie held up the spoon and blew on the dhal until the steam thinned and she took a sip, thoughtfully passing it around, side to side with curious little movements of her jaw.
“It’s ready,” she said, and Ephyra searched around for her bowl and handed it to her.
“Oh no,” said Millie, stopping, her eyes wide.
“What?” said Ephyra.
“I should have brought a ladle. This is going to take ages. I could pour it,” she offered, and looked around for something to hold the pot.
“No!” Ephyra raised a hand. “It’s okay, I’ll grab one.”
“Yeah, my legs are hurting anyway, I need a stretch.”
Ephyra stood, arched her back, then set off toward the house. After a few steps she stopped and looked back at her niece kneeling before the fire, at the flickering clouds and at the woods, and noted how profoundly distinct and extraneous a part of the world she felt at that moment. How false a picture the thing she had only just left.
It was cold in the house, and the lights weren’t working. Ephyra stood at the kitchen entrance and waited with her eyes closed for the fire’s impression, the sting of the smoke to subside, rubbing her arms in the chill. She went to the drawer beside the sink where the utensils were usually kept but instead there were folded tea-towels, a pack of coloured straws. She worked her way down as quietly as she could, opening each drawer slowly, lifting them gently from the runners and closing them with the pad of her thumb pressed flush against the edge as a buffer. She checked the cylindrical utensil holder next to the basin, the dishes in the sink, and seeing the ladle, pulled it carefully out from beneath a stack of plates and bowls and rinsed and dried it. A gust of wind pressed against the house and made the rafters tap and groan. The old bamboo wind chime by the shed, the one her father, or her mother, or perhaps her sister had brought home from the market one day and set up and left to wet and dry and moulder out in the elements began to run through its solemn, asymmetric repertoire. Ephyra felt a cringe work up through her; a wave of something cold, and she waited by the sink, afraid to move. The lights came on, the fluorescent tube above her flickering awake, and the living room flooded suddenly blue as the television came on, sounding out its loud, high-pitched dead-tone. Ephyra padded briskly through the kitchen, crossed to the living room, hurried to turn it off. Before she could reach it there was a brief surge, the high tone warped and wobbled with the image and several of the lights bloomed and glared for an instant, flashed before going dark. She stood passively, inertly surveying the dark room for a while. Shearjashub looked down at her from above the mantel. A faint wind blew through the house and the coals in the fire glowed a little then died to grey again, and there was a groan; the sound of it rolled along the floor low and resonant. Narcotic.
She tread softly into the hall.
“Mum?” she called gently. She waited for some utterance, something conscious, and hoped by her absolute silence to impel the same. The hall was long and cold and dark, and she wanted to be back at the fire in the paddock. The house was still, and the sound of the frogs chattering, ballooning, the wind chime toning spread thin and wasted again to a calm, familiar rubric, and she exhaled slowly.
Outside, Ephyra stood and looked at the sky. The distant clouds had formed a kind of bowl, a deep throne, and the light of the storm thrummed rigid, tattoo-like, and silently inside it. A star, Ephyra noticed, slid down between the other stars in the blue-black sky, down before the towering inner back of the clouds, dimmed slightly as it passed through invisible mists, then stopped. The thing hovered small and wakeful above the turmoil, perfectly still. She watched, openmouthed for several seconds and the star unstuck and descended lower, curved gently, deliberately right, then disappeared. A moment or two elapsed and there was an explosion that sent her back, that shot up through her, through the ground, ricocheted around the broad ring of bushland before being rendered down to a deep, droning sound like a diaphone that went on for several seconds before fading out. There had been a scream. It had been swallowed by the din of the explosion, and now Ephyra, wide-eyed, searched the paddock.
She crossed the garden, weak on her feet, her ears ringing, passed through the open gate of the paddock, then with a sudden rush sprinted up toward the fire. She called her niece’s name, flung the screen from the tent and looked inside. She stood and surveyed the bushland ahead, the bushland on either side.
“Millie!” she called again.
She didn’t know what could happen, what had happened, but she was scared. She had the dreadful sense of being at the foothill of something disastrous, of floundering in the rare few seconds before a catastrophe that would make everything to follow relative to itself, like a bloodstain on a white sheet. She thought of the terrible value of the girl, the cost of somehow losing her, and suddenly, as though it had never occurred to her, the weight of being her guardian while Melanie was away.
From the slight elevation she could see down into the bush, west, and a soft yellow light gleaming through the trees, hovering. The light divided, there were two now, gleaming, winking through the leaves and branches. There was a hideous screech, high and strange and forceful like a steam whistle, and Ephyra fled across the paddock, down the slope, and charging, impelled by the momentum leapt the fence, crossed the dirt path that flanked the woods and plunged into the bush.
“Millie!” she shouted. She heard voices and she bushwhacked through, spines from trees sticking, low branches lashing—she hit a brief clearing, leapt across a log, sprinted toward the light. It was Millie; she held a candle. Ephyra took her by the shoulders.
“Millie! What…what…” she stammered.
“What what? Why are you panting? You’ve got sticks in your hair!”
“Are you okay? Are you okay?”
It was all she seemed able to say, and the words latched themselves to the front of her mind so that she couldn’t see through them. “Are you okay?”
“Yes! Yes! I’m okay, it’s just the lighting storm, it probably hit something, why…”
“No there was…it’s…it’s—”
“You’re shivering!” the girl said.
“You screamed!” said Ephyra, frustrated, “I heard you scream!”
“I’m responsible for that I’m afraid.”
Ephyra turned. A man wearing a clerical collar beneath a grey sweater, with combed grey hair and neat, round spectacles came forward. The candle in his hand was held in an attitude of regret, unlit, wasted to darkness. The scent of the burnt wick was on the air.
“We were playing, Aunt Ephyra, I was being a witch, and he was hunting me. Get it?”
“Who are you?” Ephyra demanded.
“This is Jacob!” said Millie.
“You shouldn’t be just playing with children in the bush,” Ephyra said, her voice shaking. She took a deep breath.
“I am Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus—” he began, picking up his briefcase and nearing Ephyra with a handshake.
“I don’t care who you are,” she said unemphatically through the long exhalation, shaking her head, eyes closed. The man adjusted his spectacles once and was quiet. Ephyra stood there for a moment longer, regrouped, then took Millie by the arm.
“Come on,” she said.
“Hey! You’re spilling the wax on my hand!” Millie cried.
They came out onto the dirt path and headed back toward the house.
“You’re gonna be in so much trouble,” said Millie, shielding the little flame against the wind. She was crying; Ephyra could hear it.
Inside, her father was crouching before the fire, stoking it back to life with pieces of wood from the big wicker basket beside him. He turned when they entered, a cigarette hanging flatly from his lips.
“Millie Willie,” he wheezed. “What you got there?”
The candle had gone out. Millie came forward with it in her hand. She let it hang down beside her in an attitude of defeat, like a sword, and she was whimpering quietly and shuddering.
“She hurt my arm,” she squeaked.
Ephyra stood by the door quietly catching her breath, and she watched her father embrace the girl, and he frowned as he looked up at her, more in inquiry than rebuke. She closed her eyes and shook her head, then began to pull the bits of leaves and twigs and things from her hair.
“Should be ready to go, Dad,” Melanie sighed. She had entered the front door carrying a large square space heater, which she set down now beside the couch. “Oh, hey Fie,” she said, exhaling again, pulling a strand of her blonde hair from her mouth.
She turned to her daughter. “What’s the matter sweetie?” she said skeptically, “What happened?” She peered dimly across the room at her daughter, who had turned, wiped a tear from her eye with the back of the hand still holding the candle.
“Nothing!” Millie sobbed, and rushed out of the room.
“She just got away from me for a second, when the lightning hit. I got angry with her.”
Melanie went into the kitchen. At the sink they watched the girl run out to the man walking up the path beside the paddock. He had relit the candle and was moving slowly but dignifiedly along, holding the thing out before him. Millie took his briefcase and held his hand.
“It’s Bishop Huygens,” said Melanie.
“Yes,” said Ephyra.
“You have a ladle in your hand.”
“Yes,” said Ephyra.
Melanie went out to greet the man. He stopped and she bowed slightly, taking the hand with Millie’s own still inside, and kissed what Ephyra knew was the episcopal ring, though she couldn’t see it. Millie laughed.
As they approached the garden Ephyra’s father was exiting her mother’s room, crouched in the strange, servile or laboured attitude that curiously mirrored at that moment her sister’s as she walked and talked with the bishop—each looked the same, yet was distinctly different; one was about the fear of upsetting some balance, of effecting some intentional space of perfect, sacred quiet in which they were invisible, the other about spiritual perishing and oppression; an enormous, invisible weight of angst. Her father had carried in the portable heater, though she hadn’t seen or heard him. His face was flushed and the thin floe of his grey hair that usually hovered above his scalp had fallen across his face. He brushed it back and caught his breath with his tense little lips, waiting for the bishop to enter.
“Hello Wallace,” the bishop said.
Her father genuflected woodenly and kissed the ring on his right hand; a large gold one she could see now, with a misty, flat oval amethyst.
“G’day,” he said after he had stood, in a way that made it seem as though the thing had never happened.
Millie took the candle the bishop was holding and lit her own. As the adults carried on their low conversation above her, in her anonymity and separateness she seemed now more than she had before to hold the candle with the manifest understanding of the flame’s special sanctity, and her hand, gripping as it were the frustum of a great mystery, was held out before her like the bishop’s previously. Her father was blithering about the storm, and about the blackout. The word blithering came to Ephyra because that was how he sounded in the bishop’s presence—it sounded like he had stored all his words up like autumn leaves in a big bag and was throwing them now at the clergyman in the shimmering, colourful tufts that she hadn’t seen since she was a child. Millie had woven between them, her eyes fixed on the flame, frowning, and was now heading down the passageway toward her grandmother’s room, deeper and deeper, and the darkness closed around behind her as she shut the door and she was gone. Nothing made sense to Ephyra at that point. Things, she felt, had become inordinately complicated since she had come back. Or before that, she recalled once again—approaching those familiar trees, that wound the shadows round like licorice. She took up her jacket from the chair-back then excused herself with the same easy inconspicuousness as her niece through the conversation and left through the back door.
The dhal was good. There was a dark crust on the top which she had pierced and pushed aside with the ladle, and the soft, molten soup inside had poured out a steam of onion and curry and cream. Ephyra lay back in the tent, her head propped up against a pillow, and she watched the slow drift of space. The storm had passed by in a quivering, dark wave and left a wetness to everything, the pleasant smell of damp lifting from the surrounding woods like a warning. The sky was moonless, the southern cross had slid up through the split of the tent some minutes ago and now Ephyra felt placeless and full and in waiting.
Tom had been about to break the television. Yes, she thought, that was a beginning. He had held the remote up like the pitcher about to make the first pitch in a baseball game, and something tottered, his eyes or his balance, and he had returned to a normal standing posture and put the remote down on the coffee table. It was one of the few times that he had looked artistic to Ephyra. Capable of art. He was an art lover when he needed to be. He talked about Kandinsky. And about literature. Flaubert. Rimbaud. She was sure there were others he had mentioned, but those were the ones he had talked about that one night at dinner, and her eyes had glowed and she was as keen as a fox for a moment, though she couldn’t remember a single poem of Rimbaud’s, and carefully following the trail of his conversation she realised it was something like a trick. She couldn’t say why. He was flawlessly confident, it wasn’t that he failed to paint a believable picture. But there was something about the dead expression, the fluency and the inability to make anything new appear from the smooth soup of words and phrases that riled her. He was a money man; he handled money. It was tragic and hilarious to her to see the cliché hold water. Emotionally she had felt hollow and agitated, and he had cleared away the plates and opened another bottle of wine and broken in a new joke with the guests to keep the atmosphere light but Ephyra was staring vacantly at the television in the other room and pulling at her bottom lip with her nails, and had smiled and said she was alright. But there was something missing. When she saw him angry it was there—an art. A sensuousness. And she knew that was wrong; to expect that of him. For that to be a lack, something that was missing, an identifiable lack. She had that on him, and she exacted it from him in minute ways without him knowing. Little prodding and pushing. And maybe it was because she wanted to know him better, when she felt that she didn’t know him at all. The dates ran together in her head. Six months? Seven months? Too soon, much too soon, she thought. And now here I am. He liked her bawdy jokes, and maybe he expected that all the time from her, but she only made bawdy jokes, naturally, because she was not bawdy, and she was being that person running from her past and personality; the one her mother had given her. Which was sexless, apperceptive and mystical. She wasn’t sexless, but she felt pretty close to it. She liked the idea of sex, and sexuality, and passion—but that was it—the idea. Sometimes, looking at a young man and a young woman, or just a young man, who had a certain look about him, was planted with a certain strength of character, a hidden twist of something. Like the one at Queen Elizabeth park, she remembered, when she had spent a few days in Vancouver—he had looked capable of something spontaneous, and also something dark, as though he could ridicule her if she approached him with the right words, and she sensed for only a moment that there was a world of beautiful moments that she could have with him, that they would share, and that the unification of her world and his would be like the splendour of sex, and the thrill of fury, and the grief of death together, and it would make her life a living fire, and all of a sudden she felt a dangerous rush of something like obsession taking hold, and lust, and would be afraid, and later upon reflection she would realise that it was all hormonal garbage, and nothing more.
In the day-to-day she felt small pangs of lust for Tom, if she must admit it, but rarely if he was in the same room as her, and rarely did it last. It was not love-induced or hormonal, and she had spent long enough wondering what it was—her sex with Tom. It was like trying to cure herself of some sickness; some inadequate medicine, administered badly, with the understanding that it was not anything that could ever be completed, like life with death, or pregnancy with childbirth. It was something else; a compromise with something that would never be happy, never be satisfied, always obscured.
Her mother one time when she was well and they were speaking had asked how many times Ephyra thought she and her father had made love. She asked because Ephyra was having an argument with her father, when she was a girl, about seeing a movie she couldn’t remember what with a friend, and her mother wanted to prove to her beyond doubt that her father was a responsible man, knew what he was talking about, should not be contradicted. Ephyra had said nothing, and her mother had asked her to count how many children they were, and that was one, because Melanie was born in France, a man named Bertrand whom Ephyra had never met. And Ephyra had thought about that—meeting someone and making love once and spending the rest of your life with that same person. What it would have meant to her father, and what they each thought they were doing. She didn’t feel special learning that, and it didn’t make her less of a bastard, but she supposed it should have. More than anything it gave her an understanding about her mother and the overall project of her life as she must have saw it. Something about the end of the world. Something about keeping truth alight. Something about disgorging, at all costs, the prose and prophesies of the voiceless dead. And those other things. A body of writing overseen by her older sister lay in literal heaps across her city centre apartment, her sister’s apartment, was being scanned and collated and categorised. Her life, her work, her visions. Her labour and living hell.
All day we are dying
In the heat we
Lay our Beldows down
We thrift on sparks of
The confections of the
Below the Below
We shout our love
And lesioned B I– U L– I tn
I love and spire
The love in JEWSí Z
Me Bado! Me bedoin
We L L to spy
The green locks of
That distant spear, and
Smear The deluge
the End •
We mix sighs with
Heads of weighty
J E TTISONED ?
J Jī n ˛ )|ı¬
A R R AY
T H E S E S T E N S I L E D
ST ED S
IN P E R f ECT B L O CKS
OF T WO
C O M E D O W N
Y O U
RIGHTFUL M A S E TERS,
YOU W ELL – RE AD
J E W S
BLITH E AN D BLOODIED
FROM T H is
F R EN Z I ED
SP – • ‘D
“What is this?” Pearl grumbled before she had the faculty to know what was being spoken, or to what she was referring. She had a terrible crick in her neck, her feet were freezing and her right arm had barely any sensation at all.
Finn was sitting in front of the television with his back perfectly erect, which meant he was zoned in.
“Ronald McDonald,” he responded quietly after a reviving breath and a return to consciousness. Finn thought McDonalds commercials featuring Ronald McDonald were the episodes of an actual program, interposed sporadically between regular broadcasts. It was something he waited for with anticipation in the mornings, and was quietly disappointed if he should ever miss out, as though he had been robbed of something important. Pearl had caught up on an entire school term of taped broadcasts—M.A.S.H, The Twilight Zone, Magnum P.I. (Tom Seleck), even a part of a football game she hadn’t bothered to turn off.
“Who won last night, Finn?” she said. He was captivated by a commercial for a talking bear he had been asking for almost exclusively as a Christmas gift.
“Was Daddy happy or angry?”
He gave no reply.
Overcoming the initial tide of disorientation, Pearl rose and leaned against the wall by the bay window, peered between the blinds at the blank, sunless front yard. At the cedars heavy with the plague of winter, and the various toys littering the yard—a plastic tricycle; a Fisher-Price resizable kitchen; the green tail of a plastic dinosaur, its upper-half lost inside a snow-filled bucket—all things fighting for an identity separate from the sameness of the vast, faultless white intrusion. She wondered how much snow might have fallen since the previous night, and whereabouts the ring might have landed, and imagined herself out there searching for a glint of silver, testing the endeavour’s viability against her enthusiasm and energy. She would need help, she decided.
“Finn,” she said, “do you want to play a game?”
If there were the slightest breeze outside, the cold would have been unbearable, but as it was the world as Pearl felt it out there in the front yard had that pleasantly distant, inert and otherwise incomparable quality of separateness and stillness. Sudden cold tended to made her grin, at least for a few minutes, but she didn’t know why. She suspected it was physiological, something involuntary, but the snow in its own right was pleasurable, and strange—the nearness of the frost in her ears, on her skin, in her lungs, the solemnity and purity of every white surface, its gentle, flowing expiration in certain angles of the light. And there was something inescapably heartening about the way the earth still had sway over its tenants, that if the earth decided it would snow, then not a single thing could remain unchanged. She felt as though she were a small, plastic thing inside a snowglobe, which was guaranteed airtight and inside which the perfect order of the world held itself precariously against the threat of sudden, inexplicable reversion—but until then she was safe, and so then that was why she smiled.
Reaching out a hand she leant against the trunk of the front yard’s oak and blew a long, tired stream of steam while she probed numbly around the snow’s topsoil with the edge of her shoe. Down near the gate Finn looked like a squat, ponderous Michelin Man in his several layers of Gore-Tex and hand-me-down parka, and every now and then would poke a hole in the snow with a pink lightsaber they had both forgotten they had, and which now looked like a giant icy-pole. There had been several exciting moments where each had thought the ring was recovered, but overall enthusiasm had taken a dive—fingers were rigid and hurting, cheeks were tingling, inner ears were aching, though Finn’s natural disposition was to keep all such trouble to himself. Pearl would check to note the frequency at which he would shrug his shoulders; a repeated gesture that may have been an attempt to press the woollen flaps of his hat closer against his ears, or a kind of flinching beneath the weight of a cold that was, besides all else, harsh and gradually debilitating.
“What star is that?” said Finn.
“Which?” called Pearl, not bothering to look up from the furrow she was now aimlessly deepening in the snow with her shoe.
The night had been retreating without Pearl. She looked up and saw the sky washed opaque, a gloom of greyish-blue. Finn was pointing a mitten down across the river, through the bare stands of white birch and sugar maple. There were no stars where Finn was pointing, only a faint, metallic orange bloom, the crown of the sun in the south east. Slowly, feebly Pearl climbed the oak and, sitting in the crook of a branch, searched through the woods to the town beyond, scanning the sky. There was the steeple of the old parish church. As light approached, spreading the sky pink and red, she felt the unannounced twinge of something frenetic and irrational, and wanted to leap, to leap before she found the star, and she was scared and felt the thrill of a cold sweat glitter down her from her head to between her thighs and down to her toes. There between the trees—a small, white fleck, frail, fluttering. The fibrillating movement of its rays suggested a kind of struggle with the impending day. The sun peaked, silently erupted in a thousand blonde slivers of light through every tree, and Pearl shielded her eyes.
“That’s, ah…” Pearl began. She knew the names of perhaps only two stars. She tried to summon them now. One was lost without a tether in her head somewhere. The other sounded like ‘serious’, but she couldn’t remember in what way it varied. Orion’s belt. Haley’s comet. Pleiades.
“That’s Venus,” she said.
“Venus,” Finn echoed, and was quiet. The yellow lights of a car blinked through the hedgerow as it approached, and the groan of its engine was the only sound besides their breathing to penetrate the thick, soft silence. It was a red pickup truck. Finn and Pearl watched as it slowed to a stop across the street. The park brake snapped up and after a few moments a man stepped out. The faint tinkling of his radio stretched out over the deep quiet of the snow’s final sleeping figure, and he looked through the gate at something, squinting through his black-rimmed rectangular spectacles. He turned to Pearl in the tree, but he didn’t seem to see her properly, as though she were several hundred feet away, or as if from where he was across the street she might appear to be a strange-looking appendage of the tree. He took off his glasses and wiped the fog from the lenses. She thought that if she waited long enough he would be satisfied either that there was someone there or wasn’t and pass on, but he didn’t, he just kept squinting.
The pale, frost-covered stalks of birch were beginning to smoulder.
“Hello?” Pearl said. She felt scared for Finn. The gate wasn’t locked and she wanted somehow to signal him to come to her, but didn’t want to set the man off. The stranger cleared his throat after a moment or two. He slowly crossed the road and gripped the gate with his gloved hands. He looked tired, but not unfriendly, with a stubble of salt-and-pepper and a dark mop of hair beneath an ushanka.
“There’s a blizzard,” he said, sliding his hat slowly from his head, indicating the tray of his truck, or the road, or perhaps the sun with a vague, absent-minded motion of his hand. Steam puttered from his mouth as he spoke.
“Okay,” said Pearl.
“You…you kids live here now?”
“We just moved in,” said Pearl.
“What are your names?”
“And you?” he looked to Finn, who hadn’t moved, but stared at the man with the same slack, detached curiosity as he had the star.
“Hello, Finn,” he said quietly, soberly, before turning back to Pearl. “Anyone else?”
“My Dad. He’s in the house.”
“You got a mom? A sister?”
“Yes,” she said.
“They got names too?”
“My sister is Veda. Veda Levine.”
“You spell that?”
“That’s a beautiful name,” he said. “Unusual.”
The man brushed the snow from the top of the ushanka with two gentle, measured strokes before replacing it and crossing the road to step back into his car. With his gloved hands on the wheel he seemed to contemplate something, his eyes closed, then he mouthed something that could have been their names over and over. “Merry Christmas,” he seemed to say from behind the glass as he turned, but his eyes were cast warily up at the house, and he continued slowly down the street.
Pearl waited in the upstairs bathroom, nude and shivering, treading the cold tiles and rubbing the goosebumps from her arms as the shower’s stream changed gradually from murderously cold to hot. She reached to touch the freezing water with her fingertips, trying the already fully-engaged handle of the hot every now and then out of impulse. She had double-bolted the front door when she and Finn had come back inside. It wasn’t the first time she had been confronted with a passerby who seemed incapable of expressing their curiosity in a normal, neighbourly way, though in the past it had been mothers driving past in their expensive cars, or snooty-looking children on their bikes. (Pearl stepped into the shower and a profound shiver ran through her, and the hot water seared her skin and made it like itself in a delightful way.) The first Sunday of their moving in, three such kids had stopped on the road to watch her father and uncle wrestle a wardrobe from the tray of her uncle’s pickup and carry it into the house. Pearl had been with Finn, who was prodding around with a stick at the “fox holes” opening up in the snow as the sun advanced, and she had done her best, without words, to allow opportunity for introduction. They had ignored her to look up at the house with its open windows and wide open front door with strangely incredulous expressions, the way she had looked into the fish her uncle had caught that summer, and her father had clubbed then quickly gutted the quivering thing there on the boat, and she felt that night when she was trying to sleep that she knew things about a fish that she shouldn’t. That was the kind of look the kids had—a scared, excited, indecent kind of curiosity. The older-looking of the bunch wore a scarf over his mouth, and he had lowered it, holding it gently under his chin as he surveyed the scene. Mainly he just scowled at the house. It made his eyelashes darker and thicker, Pearl thought. He had a deep, mediterranean complexion flushed pink with cold in the cheeks and lips, and his dark-lashed squint gave him a strong, meditative vibe that made Pearl feel at once lightheaded and ashamed. Ashamed in a fraudulent sense, as though she were standing in front of someone else’s house waiting to be mistaken as the new neighbour.
“Are you boys wantin’ to help or just stand there gawkin’?” her uncle had called. He had stood on the porch, quietly exhausted as he unzipped his windbreaker and dropped it over the wooden railing, wiping the sweat from his brow with the fur of a thick, hoary wrist. Standing there in his grey alma mater shirt with its dark v-neck of sweat he looked like a retired boxer and the children had reluctantly pedalled away in a wind of chatter, but not before the boy whom she assumed to be their ringleader gave her a brief, brief, though interminably long look—something cut from the same mysterious regard with which he had judged the open doors and windows of the house—which were a profanity, or a curiosity, or maybe, as she hoped, simply a thing with its own inexplicable lure and beauty that deserved to be witnessed.
Wrapped in her towel, Pearl tiptoed down the hall to her bedroom and changed. She stood at the window by the portable radiator, drying her hair with a towel as she looked down across the yard at the road where the man had been.
“There’s a blizzard,” the man had said. A strange way of talking. “Where?” thought Pearl, and walked to the east window, parting the curtain to see the calm, slate sky freshening with the hues of the risen sun, at the skeletons of the woodlot; taking form, spreading shadow, losing mystery in the pellucid light. Beyond was the frozen river, the splintery jetty with its grey beams shod by the stiff, flat belly of the water, with the frozen white bird droppings that Finn had been cozened into thinking were frosted globs of something like candy, but which he was too chicken to test with his tongue.
Pearl draped her towel over the footboard of her bed and stepped into a fresh pair of underwear, then opened her cupboard. The three black dresses. She had hung them with her good coat-hangers, which were made of polished wood instead of a plastic-coated brass wire, most of which had already been bent out of shape when she got them. She took out her favourite—it was similar to the matalessé dress, though with a shorter hemline, and in floral lace, with a starched, white, narrow eton collar and black lace short sleeves. She took it out and put it on. It was clerical and clean and understated, and, she thought, it gave her pale skin, her plumpness a novitiate kind of charm and fragility, like a model in a Bouguereau painting.
She stood back, as far as she could and tried a quick genuflect. Shuffling on her knees to her bed she reached beneath for the Whitman’s Sampler she had stashed her new jewellery in and took out the silver box-chain necklace from its paper bag. She flicked around at the various broken and homeless trinkets she had collected over the years and took a small, silver, budded-cross pendant and slipped it onto the chain. Angling her dresser mirror downward she took a few steps backward, tried another genuflect with the necklace on. She crossed herself in one quick, small motion, then again at her forehead, and she whispered the Trinitarian formula, her head bowed in solemn contemplation. She did it again, with attention now to her fingers.
A certain silver cocktail ring was frustratingly lacking.
Pearl went to her closet and over her dress put on a thick hoody and her warmest down parka, then left the warmth of her room for the hallway.
She kept to the runners because it was slightly quieter, and because she didn’t like the dust that gathered at the baseboards, though the runners were hardly cleaner, and the sand and black grit of decades again lifted from between the fibres and stuck to the soft flesh of her soles. She wondered why a man with apparently so much dough didn’t hire a housekeeper. There were wet spots on the ceilings from uncontrolled ice dams on the roof, and wind whistled through the shoddy window seals. Mould in the bathroom. Exposed copper pipes, stains and cracked tiles. And it was cold. But these things she entrusted her father to fix in his own time, as he had fixed the problems at the old house. There was something beneath it all. A floating sense of hostility, of dirtiness that quietly, persistently impelled a sympathy.
But it was also a big house, with none of the associations of her former life, no memories that were hers, no imprints of her, that she could say were hers and marked out the life of the house as a thing relatable to her moods, her wishes, her daydreams. It was like the hug of a relative she had never seen. The scent of the house was the spirit of neglect, and of old sheets and mildew, but there was something else as well. It was a dead smell—the smell of time passed, the inaccessible and hidden, like leaves, or like malt. It was tricky, she thought, and her impressions never amounted to anything tangible that she might relate to anyone. Particularly the vibe. It was, now that she thought about it, like the experience of walking away from a fight with her father. She had bad fights with her mother, but it was usually because her mother had a febrile, tense personality that seemed to be in constant tension with her environment, and after an argument she more often than not simply regretted having that same tense, heightened state of mind rubbed off on her.
But her father was hard to move, and if she ever upset him it was because she had broken some rule that had been established since forever, and which upset the balance in a family reeling from the long-winded, car-crash-like breakup of a generation. It was her mother against her grandmother, and her cousins against her, and it was religion, and it was money, and it was politics, and it was the hurtful words and actions of a childhood radiating through a lifetime of temporary fixes and compromises. There were things happening in Pearl’s family she couldn’t begin to understand, though she felt the call of loyalty whenever the topic came up, the obligation of being blind when it was not her business to see, and the heart-shattering failure of breaking the tenuous bond of peace when she spoke at a time when she had no business to speak. That was how it felt—like she had said something that she should not have, she had upset her father, and now the peace had evaporated, and she was alone in the deep of an underground cavern, without a light or a guide or a route of escape, feeling around in the dust with the other ghosts.
As she descended the staircase she imagined frail hands like that of the funeral’s corpse though living, with blue veins beneath white, papery skin gripping the same banister, slowly wearing the varnish raw like the action of water against a stone. With a judge’s wage she would have bought an elevator—and a spa not to mention, a pool, a home theatre. She paused on the landing. She had forgotten which side was the quieter, the left or the right. She tentatively lowered her foot, then by intuition turned to take the right instead, which yielded several loud creaks anyway.
“I am Pearl of the now,” she whispered as she rounded the basement stairs, into the darkness, into the scariest and quietest and coldest part of the whole house besides the dumbwaiter’s well in the laundry. Her sister slept until late, and on many weekends simply wouldn’t return home. Her room was so chaotically messy that most of the time whatever Pearl took was not noticed, and when it was she blamed it on Finn, or denied involvement until some other drama replaced the first. Stealing Veda’s things was her right, and the only way she was relieved of the injustice of having her own things pilfered. In this case it was very clearly an eye for an eye, so if she usually felt a pang of guilt, now she would feel the nothing of a simple transaction. Besides, Veda loathed jewellery. She had a collection from past boyfriends and birthday gifts that just sat in a metal box in her room. She had an aversion to a lot of things that traced her back to her first self, to her girlhood. It was something her mother seemed to ignore when it came time to buy gifts—she imagined Veda as the eight-year-old who dreamed one day of going to Disneyland, and who drank hot chocolate with marshmallows and played boardgames with her on snow days, and all those other things which may as well have never happened.
Pearl paused at her sister’s door. There was a dim light showing and the murmur of a record stuck within its locked groove.
“Veda?” Pearl gave a gentle knock. “Veda?”
She turned the handle and tiptoed inside, shutting the door quietly behind her. The room was dark—black blankets draped across the basement window; a small, low-wattage lamp on the floor by the double mattress spread soft, bleak shadows. Clothes were heaped everywhere, spilling out from the laundry hamper and running down the open drawers of the chiffonier like a fountain. Pearl sang quietly as she picked her way delicately through the mess, taking note of anything new, anything icky, anything sharp. She stood at the vanity and shook a cigarette from its pack. She posed, puffing, dark glances. She ran it along beneath her nose, enjoying the dry, sweet smell of the tobacco. She put it back between her lips and pushed up her hair in the mirror, frizzed it out like her sister’s. She held her wrist slack by her face with the cigarette between two fingers. A sneer, more puffing. She put the cigarette in her jacket pocket.
She went to the record player by the bed and lifted the needle.
“Sca—scat—” Pearl faltered with a quizzical look, squinting at the words as she tilted her head. She lifted the record from the needle and turned it over in her hands, then put it back on the spindle, regretting the feeling of having lingered on and handled something possessing such a clearly evil aura—a common feeling during such illicit trips to her sister’s room. The pictures on the walls were enough reason to keep one’s head down, though like the records they weren’t all explicit—there were colourful fractals and interesting combinations of shapes, portraits and intricate mandalas and things. Many of these things had their own quiet power, and evoked in her the sense that they were part of a web in which she felt herself only slowly, gradually being clothed in, twisting into; a dauntingly vast system of meaning-making that existed perpendicular to her own small and ordered one, which one day by right, by way of nature she would gain; a highway that reached on until the inevitable next junction, which was vaster still, and just as daunting as the other.
She put the cigarette in her mouth again and pretended to light it, then wandered around the room with it hanging cooly from the corner of her lips. She opened the wardrobe, felt along the top shelf for the silver jewellery casket. On tiptoes she felt at something fabric, a piece of clothing, inched it forward by a corner and saw a glint of metal. She opened the bottom draw of the wardrobe a little and tried it with a foot, adjusted it, pushing it back a little to make it more stable. She slowly stepped up onto it, then extending her body to reach the casket she felt the whole wardrobe tilt. A rush of panic and Pearl jumped down, and the wardrobe slammed back against the wall, shuddering through the room. A groan. Pearl spun around—the sheets were moving and the dark hair of a human head emerged from beneath them. She braced herself against a sudden faintness and quickly climbed backward into the wardrobe, closing the door. She tried to slow her breath and could hear the heavy thumping of her heart in her ears. Her sister roused and sat cross-legged at the side of her mattress, her head down and her black hair drooping over her face. With her arm she pushed it back in a single thatch and glanced dazedly about the room, frowning through her stupor. She stood, wavered a little as though she were about to sit back down and shuffled to her chiffonier, lit a cigarette. Pearl edged herself around to look as her sister checked her teeth, then inspected a dreadlocked string of hair. Unable to move, Pearl hastily planned what she might do or say. She considered that the best thing to do was nothing—simply wait, but with the dust, and now the smoke, and the sudden rush of adrenaline she could feel her chest seizing. It was the familiar sensation of having her lungs filled up with cotton, so that the only effective breaths to be had were at the very top, at the very last moment of each inhalation—a tiny space of life in a rapidly closing panic. She tried to slow herself, to soften the wheezing but the instinct to force the air out of her lungs was overwhelming, and her breaths were crackly and laboured.
Her sister spun around. She set her cigarette down in an ashtray and approached the bed. She was looking at the record player. She went to it slowly, fearfully, and touched the disengaged arm. She swiftly turned to the wardrobe and looked it up and down; she seemed to be remembering, untangling her dream from waking life. She knew something had happened, that someone was there. Pearl covered her mouth, felt herself growing faint. Her feet and hands tingled and she gripped a coat beside her for support as her sister stared. She was waiting for something, waiting for her to come out so she could choke her or pull her hair or something, to sit on her chest and slap her, and she wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t care that she had asthma, and she would suffocate, and she would die. She needed to get out. She needed to run. Pearl could feel tears welling.
At once there arose a faint, cool draft from somewhere, wet and musty like a deep breath of the earth, and there was a low, droning whistle. Veda had turned pale; she moaned then dropped into her mattress and covered herself with her blankets as though she were a child hiding from the apparition of a nightmare. In the room with the smell was a sick, heavy sense of disaster, like the lurching, dreadful moment after a bloody shriek that breaks silence and signifies the beginning of something horrible and dangerously near. The presence lasted as long as a minute, with a peak and a rapid waning in intensity toward the end in which Pearl took courage and slipped from the cupboard and hurried as quietly as she could out of the room.
“And what were you doing in your sister’s room?”
Her father wiped at the right side of his face with the ball of his thumb, over his brow, rubbing and stressing the skin where the tired was. Pearl was sitting on the bathroom counter with the mask of the nebulizer fogging as she breathed; small, relaxed inhalations now, the clean, sharp mist of the medication, the familiar, comforting scent of the plastic filling her mouth and lungs easily like dewy dawn air. Her father had wheeled in the radiator from her room and it had now become warm enough for Pearl to indicate to her father to remove her parka and hoody. He lay them across the back of the chair, which in their old bathroom had served the same function and which now seemed something like the Hillis family flunkey, following them around and taking wet towels, jackets, dirty underwear and anything else one decided to fling at it.
“Pearl?” her father pressed, “That wasn’t a rhetorical question. What were you doing in there?”
“I wanted to borrow a ring.”
Her father pulled the mask away from her face.
“A ring!” she shouted.
“Ahh…” he said, and let the mask snap neatly back onto her face.
“Veda stole the one that Aunt Riley bought for me, it’s out in the front yard somewhere. Can’t you punish her Dad?”
Her father laughed, then turned to one of the drawers, pushing around its tangled contents before pulling out his electric razor and going to work on his stubble.
“Dad, I mean it! It’s not right that she can just do anything!”
Her father gave her a sidelong glance before returning to the mirror, grinning.
“Yeah, I’ll let your mother handle that,” he said.
Pearl was conflicted about what had happened in Veda’s room. Each time she played it back in her head it lost a sense of realness. She felt that if she told it how she remembered, it would be like lying—she had felt something, but what was that? Was she scared of the whistling noise, or was the fear something separate? She was completely at sea as to how to phrase it, where to start. She had never felt anything so hateful and overpowering in her life, yet virtually nothing had happened.
“There’s something in the basement, Dad, something really horrible,” Pearl said.
“That’s your sister, sweetie,” he said.
“No, I mean it! There’s something angry and…and there’s a really weird smell. I think there’s something underneath. I could feel it.”
“That right?” he said, turning.
“Yes,” said Pearl, lowering her mask. “That’s right.”
Her father tapped out the razor on the sink then began to wash his face.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“No. But feel free.”
“What about demons?”
“But doesn’t the bible say there are demons?”
“Okay maybe there are demons. But not in this house.”
“What about ghosts?”
“What about ghosts?”
“Aren’t they in the bible?”
Her father paused. “One ghost.”
“Okay, so what if Judge Korbin was a murderer, like Sherlock Holmes? And now he’s a ghost?”
“Sherlock Holmes solved murders, he didn’t commit them, I think you’re confused, pumpkin.”
Pearl reflected quietly on her error.
“There’s a really bad feeling in the house, Dad.”
Her father stopped towelling his face. He looked into her eyes.
“That’s enough, Pearl. You understand? I know you miss the old house. I know you’re not looking forward to going to Witchbrook Elementary, and making new friends and all that kind of thing, but this is what’s happened. It’s a good thing, and we gotta consider ourselves blessed. Not everyone gets to live in a mansion like us. So give me a break. Please.”
Her father returned to the mirror and Pearl felt the sadness of separation, of coldness looming as she pressed the mask to her face and breathed—it came through the cold lights in their corroded brass fixtures above the mirror, and it came from the tiles with their dry, feral balls of human hair and dust loitering in the corners, chased by the brisk air issuing beneath the door, it came from the black streaks of mould in the bath, and beneath her it came—in the radiating cold of the granite counter, and she closed her eyes and cried because all of a sudden the future seemed again to close itself, the present to unveil itself as a shuddering, endlessly recurring hall of doors and strange-smelling carpet—a saintless, profane and futile place. A unidimensional vertex of light and shadow, where bad things might happen, and where there would be no one to care or to preserve her.
Her father turned off the nebulizer. “Stand up,” he said, and she got down from the basin counter.
He took the mask from her.
“Breathe in. Breathe out. Again.”
The breaths shuddered and wavered on her lip.
“Stop crying,” he said, and she wiped the tears from beneath her eyes.
He leaned in, put an ear to her chest.
“Breathe out. Breathe in. Out.” She muffled her sobs with the back of her hand. Her father stood and turned off the radiator, took up her hoody and parka, threw it around her shoulders. Something flew from the pocket and bounced off the mirror, landed in the basin. Her father looked with disbelief at it. At the cigarette, moistening now in the sink and peppered with the black grit of his beard. He took it and slowly brought it round to Pearl’s face.
“What is this?”
“What is this?!” he roared. He leaned in, took a fistful of his daughter’s hair and pressed it to his face, inhaling. He tossed the cigarette to the floor and took Pearl by the shoulders. “Who taught you to smoke? Who? Has she done this? Are you two smoking together now? Jesus Christ you’re too young for this!”
He stood, wrenched the door open and she heard the ornate crystal handle burst against the tiled wall, clatter loudly to the floor in fragments.
“Go to your room!” he pointed.
“Dad!” Pearl sobbed.
“Now!” he shouted, and punched the door, then again, and there were two large holes, and a crescent of blood on the lip of the fractured wood.
Her mother stepped out into the hall. “Mark? What’s happening?”
“Your god-damned daughter is teaching her to smoke!” he shouted again.
“How dare you!” her mother cried as he went back into the bathroom to collect the evidence. “She can’t be the scapegoat for every goddamn thing that happens in this family! It needs to end!” She glared at Pearl, trembling, then began to cry. Her face was like drooping grey putty, frail and distant and sad.
“Mom it’s not true,” Pearl sobbed, “I didn’t smoke.”
Finn had wandered from the living room and was at the bottom of the stairs, watching on quietly. Pearl’s father returned with the cigarette.
“Here!” he said, brandishing it at her mother, who shrunk at the gesture as though it were a physical blow.
“What is he doing up?” her father threatened, looking down at Finn.
“We were outside…”
“What the fuck were you doing outside?”
“There was a man out there!” Finn said, and ran away.
Her father rushed at Pearl.
“Mark, no!” her Mother cried.
“Haley go back to bed!” he roared. Suddenly overwhelmed, her mother staggered back into her room and slammed the door. In the silence they could hear the muffled sound of her wailing into the bedsheets.
Crouching, Pearl’s father took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. “It’s dangerous, Pearl!” he breathed, and she felt his voice in her hair, on her cheeks wet with tears. “Don’t you get it, Pearl? It’s dangerous out there! There are people in this world that want to hurt you, to make you like them.” He picked up the cigarette and ground it between his fingers. “This is for grown-ups, you get it? It’s part of the grown-up world, you don’t belong there! Not yet!”
“Dad I didn’t do it,” Pearl choked, “I didn’t smoke, I was only pretending.”
“I believe you,” he said, and drew her in. “I believe you, I believe you. Pearl,” he said, and stroked her hair. “Pearl. Someday you won’t have your Dad. Someday you’ll be by yourself. In the world. And the world wants to make you like itself. Like darkness. It’s darkness. But you must resist. You must be stronger than that.”
“I will,” Pearl said, and her tears flowed into her father’s clothes, and she clung to him, to his scent, to his warmth, to his power, and his power was hers, it flowed from him to her, and wrapped her in its shadow.
acob had lost his train of thought. With the triangle of his shirt that peaked beneath his sweater he cleaned his spectacles and set them back on his nose. Millie was pulling at another rock in the wall of dirt, the private little prospect she had dug out on the hill.
“Here!” she said excitedly, handing him the flashlight. “This is a good one, I can tell!”
He took it and aimed at the small projection around which the girl scraped and gouged dramatically with the trowel. She leant with a hand against the topsoil as she dug, and here she stopped to breathe, to wipe back a stray hair or two from her forehead with the back of her wrist. It was preternaturally mature, that gesture, but not unusual for the girl Jacob thought, for she was unlike any girl her age. She sighed then crouched, then with the edge of her gloved hand pushed and rolled the rock around in its soft clay socket, and it toppled out. She searched for it and he lined up the flashlight as best as he could. She emerged, holding the thing excitedly, wiped the dirt from it and held it to the beam.
“Quartz!” she said. “Quartz but no cigar!” She imitated the strident lisp that gave his sibilants the sharp, whistling quality of age and scholasticism, cured his accent with an antiquity that was absurd and abundantly amusing for Millie.
She put the little rock aside, inside a plastic tupperware beside him and continued scratching at the wall of dirt. She had shown Bishop Huygens her quartz collection, which she kept in a wooden box Wallace had made for Melanie, and which she kept beneath her bed. Some of them weren’t bad, to his eye, but her expert appraisals covered them over with a film of failure and imperfection. Though marvellous and intricate, they tried to be something they had failed to be, which was perfectly symmetrical, clear, terminating cleanly at both ends. He had wondered aloud whether God had made any jewel on earth to such a standard, and Millie had insisted that he had, but he gave the earth the power, the prerogative to bring it forth. She had a pretty good one in a black velvet drawstring pouch beneath her pillow. She protected it from the daylight because the ultraviolet radiation dimmed the purple hue and made it pale, like ordinary quartz, but it was squat, clean and richly purple like his own in the ring he wore.
He set the torch down beside him and the white light rolled off into the brush. Millie didn’t seem to mind. He crouched uncomfortably by the little tub of rocks and picked one out.
I am incapable of good.
He turned the little rock in his hand. It was like a potato pulled prematurely from the ground. He wiped the dirt from one of its faces and allowed the dimness of the starlight to slide along the smoothness. He thought of reviewing his missal, thought of checking his watch again, but committed it to the teeming, agitated space of straight lines, the rectilinear passing and descending of names, tones and gestures that was now only a narrowing elision drawing itself inward at the corner somewhere, and sank into the dumb, improvised mood of wonder he was used to around the girl. He put the crystal to his ear and listened.
“You can’t hear any vibrations,” she said, catching him. “Maybe you can feel it though.” He said nothing, held the crystal closer to his ear and listened to the hissing, tintinnabulating vacuity. The nothing. Jacob began to nod his head. The rhythm continued on and on, and he felt dizzy and tired and slow, which is precisely what he wanted.
“Let me see,” said Millie. She put down her trowel and carefully took the crystal with both hands, brought it to her ear like the bulky earpiece of a rotary phone. She inclined her head.
“Mmmmmm,” she hummed. “That’s the sound of the earth. That’s the sound of this crystal. It might be special,” she concluded.
“We’d better put it back then,” he said. “It might be dangerous to keep it.”
Millie thought about it. The bishop groaned and finally let himself sit, brought his legs carefully over the edge of the pit, careful not to drag and dirty the fabric of his slacks.
“Now you make me feel bad,” said Millie. She looked around her, into the dark bush away from the torchlight, then ditched the thing as far as she could. They heard it land among the leaves several meters away. They watched each other for a little while, waiting, as though there should be some response, a tribute from…something. Millie smiled. She felt what he felt. That the air, or perhaps simply the space of that moment was emulating something else, over there, unreachable, making signs in its mute and imperturbable way. Pretending for the fun of it, as they were, to a dignity and significance seperate from the entire structure of life—all life. They were in it. They were parts of it. They were not it. He was impelled to admit that like her own, his life was the brief pressing of his weight upon a stylus that was scoring the record of the universe. Life trailed behind them absolute and permanent, and to the present moment, to its reification and resurrection from the dead stuff of time they were as devoted as the Almighty God. The water roared, drops leapt as they lashed across the rocks, in a brief, spectral glint they vainly apprehended their suchness at the same moment of their falling back into the broad, undistinguished outward wave of the world, the toroidal manifold that swelled and spumed and yearned toward its established end. Millie nodded, and Jacob tongued at a missing molar as he limped around the thought the way he would any strange theory, though it was not strange.
There was nothing attractive, let alone logical to him about a strict circularity. A wheel, on the other hand, was circular, described its path with the same exactness and profound reflexivity, with the added attraction of moving forward, like the river. He didn’t want, in a grander, more cosmic sense to do the same thing over and over and over as he felt he had achieved sufficiently in his life so far. Let, he thought, me not be compelled to minister some self-referential, pandemic quirk; an unending, impersonal monstrosity without beginning or end, or purpose of any kind.
“Transmigration of the soul?” he asked.
“Grandma says yes, I say I’m not sure.”
“How does it work.”
“Well,” she said, going back to her digging. “When you die…”
“When you die your mind returns to a sort of…workshop. And the workmen, the architects, use bits and pieces of your soul to make another, and that goes into something.”
“Sometimes someone. Sometimes a plant, a tree. A flower.”
“Let’s hope not.”
“If you’re a special soul, you’ll get transmigrated directly after assimilation, after a period of disembodiment. You could be assigned to something while you’re away, you could be working, and have workers under you, or maybe you’ll rest, quiet reflection, thinking about your mistakes and what you can improve on. The vast majority of people only fluctuate in and out. They die, they’re used as scrap…tin, lead, nickel. Put back into someone. Mixtures of souls with slough. There’s too many people. The whole human race is watery now.”
“I thought you said you were agnostic about it.”
“I am but…it’s true anyway. Most people have no purpose. They’ve been told the purpose of life is life…and that’s circular, it makes no sense.”
“Much of art is like that. Is about itself. Does art make no sense?”
“The word is ‘autotelic’.”
“I’ll trust you on that…”
“It’s futile if it’s contributing only to a broader analysis of itself. Of aesthetics. The meaning of meaning. It doesn’t have to be.”
“How does one avoid…futility?”
“We look up. Instead of around.”
“Cognizant of waking.”
“What?” Jacob adjusted his glasses. He was beginning to feel drained.
“That’s next. That will be the next thing that changes everything.”
“Like the Renaissance?”
“Yes,” said Millie. “It goes”—she began to list the order of the apocalypse with her fingers, and the standard classroom inflection of her voice suggested it was something canonical, and Jacob listened carefully—“Cognizant of Waking,” she said, “Well Through the Night, Rapture (Notorious Rapture), Revival (Glorious Revival), also called Wellspring of Sorrows, and Redemption.”
Bishop Huygens went through the list, Millie corroborating, and he counted them out on his own fingers.
“And you say step four, ‘Revival’—”
“Glorious Revival, my apologies, you say this step is also called ‘Wellspring of Sorrows’?”
“I don’t say.”
“Who says? Your Mother?”
Millie said nothing, but looked at Bishop Huygens knowingly.
“Someone else? One of them?”
“Which?” he said.
“Iudex,” said Millie. “The Judge.”
“The Judge,” Jacob repeated, the slightest edge of contempt. “And what has he seen that’s so bittersweet about the future?”
There was an unnerving pause in which Millie matched the Bishop’s gaze, as though collecting, refashioning the silence to be the reverence due the subject.
“Well,” she said. “There’s new technologies—energy, propulsion, manufacturing, medicine. Peace on earth.”
“And the wellspring of sorrows?”
“You work it out,” she said. “Complete centralisation. Mind control. There is no such thing as agreeing with the new system or not agreeing. The only kind of people left alive are on board. Millions will die. There’ll be an automated system of control overseeing absolutely everything.”
Jacob imagined a vast, reticulated structure canopying the earth, its limbs reaching, touching, spying, arranging. Inside he shuddered, then he hemmed, adjusted his position to ease the stinging, aching numbness. He had, he reminded himself, heard this before. Had read about it. It was in the manual, so to speak, in various forms. Atlantis. Hiranyapura. The New World Order. Millie smiled; an unhurried, delicate expression that lingered, was the final, careless punctuation to everything she articulated that was of great import. It was her way of saying, I’m here! I’m still here! Please don’t be mad.
He felt for her then, and felt at ease. She was only rehearsing the myth of the ages, the myths of her grandmother. Of the oracles, the spirits, the seances, he didn’t know how to feel. His days of righteous indignation, of turning tables were over—he was old, and hard, his corners were all worn and dull, and philosophies, blasphemies, heresies seeped and lingered and slid, none affected him in particular, none made him troubled the way he used to be troubled. The church, he felt, had untethered him a long time ago, and he was tapping out the musty rhythm of its canticles as he puttered about his retirement like the child in the sandbox searching for the last thing to complete his day at the park. The sand castle. The slippery dip. The noughts and crosses. This was the space between two sacraments, he thought. He had wanted to complete life well. He had wanted to touch the foot of the mountain, touch the eye of God, and survive, and now he didn’t know. He liked Australia. This place, he thought, with its woodsmoke smell. With its sound of birds. Sound of chopping wood.
He stood and stretched. Over the low house, down toward the north-west the sky had been swept over with a thin, wavy membrane of white cloud. Behind it the risen moon was like a bright phosphene, haloed and blurry, and amid the overcast was a hollow space like a lacuna over the west woods. Two stars swam in it, two little ones, one yellow, one white. Jacob wondered at it, and it become somehow profound. The surrounding cloud gave the stars their true, hidden sense of distance. The overarching sheet of cloud was the obstacle, and the broken piece in which the two stars sat perfectly serene was the gateway to the rest of the world, the real world. If, he thought, he were to step out through there, travel in a straight path through that space…there would be nothing—nothing on earth was there to stop him, he would just go on and on, maybe for thousands of years. The immensity of it was staggering to him.
Millie stood suddenly. Jacob watched as, without a word, she climbed out of the hole then hurried down the dim hill and in the direction of the house. He looked. The screen door creaked open and Wallace emerged. Millie ran, then slowed as she crossed the garden, slipped inside, and Wallace said something as she passed. Jacob took up the torch and headed back.
At the door Wallace gave a smile, as though to refer back briefly to the great bit of yarning they had had, to acknowledge it before burying it back into the firmness and rigidity of his steel and fire countenance. The flannel shirt he wore unbuttoned had the hoary, faded appearance of something exhumed, and he crouched over slightly in his characteristic wince.
Wallace took care of her. When he was gone. When Millie and Melanie were gone. Day and night he took care of her, fed her, bathed her, took her to the bathroom. His body was a living sacrifice to his wife; withering, failing, dying in tandem with her. Both were leaving themselves behind. Those two suns, he thought, once all the doings of stardeath have been done, will vegetate the interstellar soil with all the outthrust ruminated lees of life, and the once-life, stored with the splendour of death explodes slowly to light the way for something else. The animal body does the same, if left alone. Feeds the ground. Makes passages for the living. That is what he believed. He had seen it with his own eyes.
But, he thought, we box up and burn and mummify. We are not animals. He bowed slightly as he entered, handed Wallace the torch. The electricity had not come on yet. The hallway was cold, the air had a firm, uncongenial quality that made him want to cough. Millie was waiting at the last door with his briefcase. In the dark her face was quiet. He couldn’t place the expression. It could have been worry, and he might have looked the same—without light it was all the same. Millie looked up at him, and he looked back and smiled, then placed his hand tenderly on her head.
“You go,” he said.
First there was darkness. And the length of it, and the height of it, and the depth of it could not be counted. And she drove within it, on a current of no direction, dissipate and nude. She was not self, for self had not begun. Cold was not. And nor was hot. When not had thriven, then was there. There was not. She saw, and was. In there, when not had passed, was not darkness. It was lightness. Lightness was. He is was; she saw. Large was not, and nor was small. Left was not, and right was not, and up was not, and down was not, all was direction. There was light. She saw, and was.
Beyond light was not light, the not light was made darkness. All not light was darkness, and the darkness was not good. All besides the light was not good. The good was, and the good is, and the good will always be. He is worded. The word was. The word has been. The word is good.
Light word made light. Light was. And then light was. And then light was.
Then was it. She was it, with light, with good, with word.
Then was my, and our. Our became. We were.
The bored on dead have died again
bored on the sweaty planks of sty undreaded
Fight the stillbent den
Riled philemon deist
I’ll have borne the fire
Begeth me friend,
Fell el el el el el
Rome breaks stand and steady
Rims on salem
Rum / Run (?)
Pearl woke up with a headache. She felt nauseas. Downstairs she could hear her sister laughing with someone whose voice she didn’t recognise. She put on the black lace dress that she liked, the one with the pointed collar and donned again her parka. She opened her door slightly and tried to peer out past the balcony handrail down into the foyer. Someone was there; a slightly overweight someone in a fluffy red Christmas sweater. Shiny, curly black hair. He looked like a high-schooler, or maybe someone from one of the colleges. He was holding a grey kitten and Veda, in a very atypical show of affection was scratching it gently behind one ear, and the thing closed its eyes and purred. Pearl couldn’t tell if the boy was attractive. In her room she unzipped her parka and put on her gold belcher and smoothed out her hair a little. She didn’t want to take chances.
“Well hello,” said the stranger as she descended the stairs.
“H. Christ it’s the first day of holidays and you’re already waking up at three.”
“Is it three?” said Pearl drowsily. She forced a yawn and stood at the last step, leant against the volute of the stair’s newel post.
“Three and free baby brie,” sang the boy.
“I don’t know what that’s from,” Pearl laughed. “What’s the kitten’s name?”
“We don’t know yet,” said the boy. “We were thinking ‘Tate’.”
“It’s cute,” said Pearl, “where did you get it?”
“Out back, out in the woods,” the boy waved the cat’s paw and Pearl gave it a scratch behind the ear.
“Hello! Hello!” the boy ventriloquized. “Your name is Pearl!”
“Yes,” said Pearl, shaking the kitten’s paw, “very pleased to meet you.”
“Pearl this is Draco.”
“Yes! Really!” said the little grey cat, waving its paw. It closed its eyes again.
“Dad’s collecting firewood with Uncle Blake, Mom’s making a stew, it won’t be for a while,” said Veda. She wanted her to leave. Pearl stood firm and met Veda’s eyes. Each second mounted perilously the last, threatening to topple, and Veda’s dark, thin eyes said nothing new each time. There was only indomitable calm and wisdom. Draco knew also—something was being shared silently between them, and he lifted the little paw of the cat and waved.
“Bye-bye Pearl! Bye-bye Pearl!”
Finn kicked his feet at the table and Pearl’s mother said for him to stop. He cooled the soup on his spoon with little rhythmic puffs of air and rolled his eyes round and round. Pearl stared at him.
“What is this called?” Finn asked nobody in particular.
“This is chorba, Finn,” her mother said.
“Is chorba good for you?” he said, swinging his feet again beneath the table.
Her mother didn’t answer, and Finn pressed.
“Yes, it’s good for you,” said Pearl finally, and Finn opened his little mouth wide. The spoon clacked and clicked along his teeth as he sent it round with his tongue.
“Superb!” he said with a ring of triumph, brandishing the now clean spoon.
“So is that what your Aunty bought you?” her mother said. She blew on her soup too, but when she did her lips were pursed as though she were preparing to kiss the edge of a toilet seat, and her eyes were demanding and rigid.
“Not just this,” Pearl said. “A couple of other necklaces. This is just my favourite.”
“Some flats, some nice ones. A couple more dresses. I can’t think what else,” she lied.
“But,” said Finn with a cheeky smile, and held up a finger. “But!”
“But what?” said her mother, batting her rigid gaze between them.
“But nothing,” said Pearl, and hissed silently at Finn when her mother wasn’t looking.
“Good, well you can wear one of your dresses to Mass tomorrow, that’ll be nice won’t it?”
Pearl went to groan but caught herself at the last moment. Her sister didn’t have to go to church, and Pearl loathed it. The fourth Sunday of Advent. Pews would fill up, and she would be squashed and serried. The smell of sweaters rich with other people’s houses and pets, and damp cigarette smoke, and squeaking sounds of digestion in bellies beside her. The pax vobiscum with hundreds upon hundreds of moist, lingering hands, gliding in to meet her at every angle, smiling at her. At least with so many Christmassers and their children she would have a little more freedom to chat with Finn.
“Have you shown your father all your nice things?”
“Did your Aunt Riley ask after me?”
“We didn’t talk about you.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“No, your sister didn’t mention you. Mom.”
Finn was making a mess. Pearl scooped at a rill slipping from his lip and chin and wiped his face with a tissue.
“How are you liking your holidays so far?” her mother said.
Pearl blew on a spoonful of soup as she thought about the question.
“I haven’t really done anything yet.”
“Now that you have some free time maybe you and Finn can take a look around. Do some organising. Find some treasure.”
Finn’s face lit up and he turned to Pearl.
“There’s no treasure, Finn.” said Pearl.
Pearl did the dishes and looked out at the woodlot. Stands of ash reached with their chalky fingers to the even matte of grey. The balsam firs were still thick and proud, pointing like the forests of arrows in Finn’s drawings; a recurring motif—pointing up to space. The snow was holding on in clumps across the brittle lawn.
Pearl made a game of lifting an inverted glass tumbler in the soapy water, and it was heavy with the magically suspended water inside it, with pale tissuey threads of bread turning in the sudden flurry, rushing upward, and the two waters, the one above and the one below, pulled toward each other for fear of separating. In the south-west, in the glow of the setting sun the bright star was falling into the woods.
In the living room Pearl stroked Finn’s hair as he slept, gently brought her fingertips together along the firmness of his scalp. Last night her father had taped the final Twilight Zone episode for the year and she was now at the climax of the final segment, an Arthur C. Clark adaptation, with mediocre production value and no one she recognised.
“Grieve but for those who go alone,” declaimed the astrophysicist, quoting the final words of an extinguished alien race—“Grieve but for those who go alone, unwise, to die in darkness, and never see the sun.”
The recording fluttered and warped, sending several fragments of past recordings curling up in a ligature of vibrant colours and noises, then went to grey. Pearl huffed a sigh, then dropped her head back on the couch.
“Typical,” she breathed.
But the irritation of missing the last minute or so of one of her favourite programs had quickly given way to guilt, and longing. Her father hadn’t returned yet with Uncle Blake. She could feel his absence in the house. She bristled at the thought that, yes, she was the watcher—she was up sustaining them both with her prayers, wringing her hands, resisting sleep, while everyone else did as they pleased. But she was fatigued with another kind of worry, too. A relentless, undirected sense of anxiety and foreboding. It was like a pall of forgetfulness that deprived her of fulfilling some duty, some urgent thing she must escape or prevent from happening. Being out of school didn’t help—in fact it seemed to have made it worse, though she thought that without the pressure of finishing reports and studying for tests she would be relieved of it. That hadn’t happened. It was more like she had disrobed herself of a responsibly that was protecting her from this deeper one, and the deeper one, which had nothing to do with schoolwork or anything she was accustomed to she must not realise, must not touch, must not uncover.
God is good, she thought. God is here with me. God will protect me.
Pearl allowed her eyes to close. The noise. The downpour of the television’s empty, unbroken wash was filling her. She slept.
And soon she was on her little sailboat in the tempest. The ocean is grey sheets of salt and scud, rippling, lashing fiercely at the sails, enfolding the world in sound. Down below deck is the white woods, and its dead calm, where is her father. He drags a newly felled fir tree through the rich, soft snow. It is bound with rope and limp. He kneels to rest and is breathless. He says words, and she says words too. In his pocket he has a silver ring. A present, and Pearl takes it but does not put it on. When he is gone she is lost in the woods, and the ring is lost in the snow. She follows the dead tree’s footsteps, and the broad brush of it goes in one direction, but in the other, there is the house—she sees the light of it, the light of the round attic window through the trees.
In the attic, a man is sitting in a chair, one leg crossed gracefully over the other, and they talk. She asks what his name is, and he says she isn’t allowed to hear its sound. She asks again and he lifts an arm, and beside him on the wall he writes slowly, gently in the dust the letters of his name. I U D E X. And she begins to cry, and she tells him how she has seen her dad, and he is lost in the woods, and the ring is lost in the snow. And they talked for a long time, about the end of the world. It was all about the end of the world. And Pearl was crying, because she kept thinking about the ring. When it was black, and the man was gone, something from above glistened and flashed as it spun, and fell. She opened her hand and it fell into her palm. It was her father’s ring, and Aunt Riley’s ring, and they were linked together, and Pearl wept.
I will devote you to the dim and wayless sea.
The house, its vast, hidden frame groaned flatly like the strange, single tone of a horn as a gust blew through and Pearl woke. Outside, snow curled in fits like smoke, swept then disappeared. The television was off and Finn had gone to bed—her lap felt cold and vacant without him. She forced herself to sit up straight and strained to hear something far away; a faint, bright, peeping noise.
She stood in the foyer and listened. It was like a whistle. A small, distinct fluting, falling, questioning the dark between pauses of doubtful silence. Pearl followed the noise along the downstairs hall. She found herself praying quietly again, reassuring herself that she was not alone as she traced her fingertips gently along the wall, below the photographs.
The sound ended at the study. The door was open slightly, which had never been the case—she assumed it was always locked, though Mr. Mercadier hadn’t been around for a few days and it now occurred to her that his mysterious work might have been completed. Despite this, standing at the door with her fingers ready at the handle, she was troubled by the somehow just as real and present proscription to stay out. It was like the immediate effect of a spoken command; it worked on her internally, physically, to keep her to the spot. There was the fluting again.
“Hello?” she called gently. She opened the door. Encountering the new room reminded her of her strangeness to the house itself—it was like the red flesh of the fish, the inside parts at which the children gaped and gawked. In the darkness she made out the books, row upon row against the wall, as well as open cardboard packing boxes, stacks of newspaper, photographs, folders, computer disks. At the end of the room, beneath the desk the eyes of a kitten flashed like two round flakes of nacre out of the shadows.
“Tate!” Pearl whispered. She came toward it and it began cleaning itself. It peeped when she took it beneath the belly and held it against her, then began to purr. Pearl sat before the computer and the kitten toppled against her then fell into a ball with its neck angled invitingly upward. She felt along the soft, downy fur of its neck and flank with the hook of her finger, gently scratched its chest. In the reflection of the computer monitor she saw a human figure, and a hot electric charge flushed through her.
“Find anything juicy?”
She turned. It was the boy. She could see his dark curls silhouetted in the frame of the door.
“N-No,” Pearl stammered. “I just—I found—the door was open so…”
“Relax, you’re not in trouble.”
He came forward.
“So that’s where you were,” he said, stroking the kitten. “You know how to turn this on?”
Pearl looked to the computer, then back again. “No, I, I don’t think—”
“It’s not like the IBM,” he said, “you’ll be using this mostly,” and he picked up the mouse, turning it over in his hand, thumbing the grey ball in its socket. “It still has a flip at the back, here,” he said, and reaching around the beige-coloured rectangular box, he switched something and the computer gave a tone and a soft, static fizz, and lit both their faces a greyish-blue. The kitten squinted then yawned and went back to sleep as the thing clicked and whirred into action. The desktop loaded.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” said Pearl, but the kitten was on her lap, and she was deep in the big chair, and Draco was leaning over her, and it was dark and between these things it felt as though she could not move at all, like the only way for the error to be undone was if Draco took her by the hand and led her out and shut the door behind them.
“What do you mean?” he said, “It’s why you’re in here isn’t it? Check this out.”
He opened a folder in the hard drive labelled ‘Games’.
“You probably have some of these on your Dad’s old IBM, I had a quick look already. But a lot of these are exclusive. Loaded right on the hard drive, no disks. Here, like this one.” He opened one of the games and it loaded. Draco’s breath whistled quietly through one nostril, and she could feel it licking at her scalp, at the parting of her hair. The room was cold and in the light of the computer monitor she could faintly see their blue breath mingling. The game loaded and Draco read through some kind of prologue in a low, inspiratory mutter to himself, then clicked, and she jumped at a sudden shriek of laughter that was apparently part of the game.
Draco laughed. “Yeah, it has real sound files, not just beeps and ticks. This will be the standard,” he said, navigating the first-person character via the four cardinal points. He played for a while longer, eventually sitting down beside Pearl on the chair’s sturdy cushioned arm. There was only the smart, calculating clitter of the machine’s unseen parts, and Draco’s faint nasalisations.
“You know a lot about computers,” Pearl managed, almost choking on the first word.
“Yeah,” he said. “I have a couple myself. In the future they’ll be way faster.”
“What do you mean, ‘faster’?”
“Just what they’ll be able to handle. They’ll know more things, be able to do more things. They’ll all be colour, too. You’ll be able to watch movies on them. Talk to people…”
“Like a telephone?”
“Like a window. You’ll see them, and they’ll see you. The president will have a computer, kids will have computers. A computer like this in the future will be cheap, it won’t even be worth anything. They’ll still be huge, the ones the government will use, the size of this room, this house.”
“What about like, a computer for a kid? It won’t be huge.”
“No, normal people will have computers that will fit in their pocket. They’ll be colour and can do basically all the things your other gadgets do. Like a calculator, a telephone, a video game console, a television—you won’t need anything else, just the little computer in your pocket.”
“Wow,” said Pearl. “How do you know all this stuff? Is your dad an inventor, or a big computer guy or something?”
“No, I don’t have a dad. There are other ways of finding out things.”
“Like books, like friends, television.”
“Did you find out all this stuff from television?”
“No,” said Draco, and the word rasped a little in his throat and became a light chuckle.
Pearl watched quietly, petting the cat. She was intensely grateful for that small excuse to move, because otherwise she knew she would be as still as a statue. She wasn’t sure if she had ever been as close to another boy for so long, besides Finn. He smelled like sage, his sweater, or maybe he himself, his sweat, and Pearl imagined his house as being warm, and pleasantly dim, with rugs on the walls, and incense burning in rooms full of books.
“Do you know other things?”
“Like…about the end of the world.”
“Or other stuff like that.”
“Sure. I know that it’s going to be like it is now. Just like this, except with better medicine, space weapons—”
“Like the Strat…strategy…” Pearl stopped, realised she had dived into a sentence she couldn’t finish, and blushed.
“The Star Wars program, yes. Lasers and that kind of stuff. The last Pope will be a Jesuit, and there’ll be no more Roman Catholic Church.”
“You heard me,” Draco said, and smiled.
“Oh no,” Pearl said meekly, and looked down at Tate, who was still purring in his sleep. Draco continued.
“It’ll mean nothing in the end anyway. It’ll be totally old-fashioned, even Catholics will feel embarrassed and won’t believe. Nobody is going to believe in ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it just won’t exist. Not in a real way. Every kind of person will demand exactly what they want, and then ‘wrong’ will just be denying anybody what they want, or saying that it’s wrong. There’ll still be crimes; assault, theft, rape, but the concept of human accountability will just sort of be like…like praying when you don’t believe in God.”
Pearl listened as Draco’s voice quite quickly took on a tone of command that he hadn’t begun with. His eyes were glazing and he was only idly clicking through the game.
“Man and woman will be thought of as a purely social construct, and affirming distinctions of essence or value between one thing and another will become wrong too. Everybody’s quest will be to reunify with their higher self, who they see to be basically like gods. Science will become an instrument used to instantiate a universally agreed-upon ideal based on the idea of the human race as a regenerate community of god-men. The average human will be as foolish as ever but will believe they are intellectually irreproachable. This will partly be due to the prevailing notion that the ‘real’ is a construct, like gender, and we are each of us architects of reality. Objective existence will be fragmented and disputed in terms of their qualia, and new discoveries in quantum physics will be the blood and water of an ontological framework affirming subjective godhood. The burgeoning understanding of the human body as a frame of flesh for a higher entity hidden in the fabric of the quantum world will furnish philosophical arguments for culling, human experimentation, interspecies gene splicing, and euthanasia. New decryption technology will open a forum of dialogue with invisible, quantum beings called ‘Numen’, ambassadors of whom will be welcomed into our own spatial dimension secretly, and will at first be mistaken by the world’s governments as ‘aliens’, which they are not. Not in the understood sense.”
Pearl had not taken her eyes off the computer once. She was watching Draco in the dim reflection of the monitor, trying to remain still, and quiet. He had gradually become more and more pale, and despite the room being freezing, and he being preternaturally calm and poised, was sweating. In the long pause that ensued there was the dreadful feeling that Draco knew what she was going to ask, and that he, whoever he was, was waiting.
“What do they come to say?” she said. Draco looked down at her, and she looked up at him.
“That the physical universe is vast, cold and dead. That humans are unique. That we are the only self-animate material things in existence. That we, humans, are both subject and object, he and it, creature and creator. That we are astral magicians, and our magic is will.”
“You’re really smart,” said Pearl after a long pause. She cleared her throat. “I wish I knew as much as you do.”
Draco’s bearing seemed to lapse quietly; his breathing deepened and he smiled, colour returning to his face.
“Has anyone ever showed you the stars, Pearl?”
“You mean like…”
“Has anyone named them for you?”
“I don’t think I’m allowed outside.”
“We won’t tell,” Draco said, and took Pearl’s hand.
Tate was a quiet, warm little precious thing within Pearl’s jacket; he squinted against the brisk night air, and so did Pearl. The snow in the backyard glittered and shone softy in the blue light of the moon. The river was still, laid low and flat between the trees at the end of the yard. Draco led the way, turned and smiled, trod backwards through the snow and seemed to draw something from the mass of stars, their light and life, opened his arms to them, and Pearl again was reminded of the books, the incense, the burning herbs, and saw stars only.
At the jetty he pointed, named the great burning orbs of light, distinguished them one from another by distance, by heat, by glory, by mass and power. He said where they had come from, and where they were going, and who they might have been, and slowly, powerfully something was being lifted from Pearl’s eyes. She had never seen the stars, she realised; she had only ever seen that dreadful, unknowable scatter, strangers, deep mysteries of space. But now she saw they followed laws—they were diligently, devoutly traveling their prehistoric paths like pilgrims. They were breathing, living, not fossils, gods, unfailingly making light from the indrawn darkness, and reaching out in glorious final spasms of death and desire, spectral fire and fury, giving themselves in their final throes as lanterns for the living, completing their vast astral assignments and releasing their essence in colour, dust and motion. In them was every seed of life and every word of law.
“Every man and every woman is a star,” said Draco, walking along the lake. “You, Pearl, you are a star!”
Pearl stood at the edge of the jetty, shivering, looking out over the frozen water.
“Come!” Draco said, beckoned with a hand. “Quickly, come! You’ll miss it!” he said, and Pearl squinted through the trees to the east where he was looking.
She crouched over the edge and Tate slipped through her jacket, landed on the planks and ran.
“Tate!” she called.
“Come!” shouted Draco on the lake.
Pearl watched the little cat run away, disappear into the woods.
Pearl lowered herself onto the ice, slipped and regained her balance at the last moment, held onto the planks of the jetty.
“You’ll be okay!”
Pearl trod carefully over the ice, small steps, toward the boy. She was cold and thrilled and scared. Her muscles were aching, and she prayed that the ice would hold her, and that she would not fall. A calm was spreading like dawn, a weight, like water, descending, filling her. Draco reached and took her hand, and they stood, looked out toward the east, down the bright blue ribbon of the frozen river, and the bright star Sirius rose, flashed, was induced into the vast waters of space, and Pearl understood.
“This is your great grandfather’s star, Pearl. This is your star.”
“No, my head is full of trash. And I’m tired.”
“But you’ve been sleeping all day!” said Millie.
“I haven’t slept a wink so far,” said Ephyra.
“Could you please.” She broke off a shard of chocolate from the egg and prodded gently with it at her aunty’s lips. Ephyra pulled up at the sheets but it was stuck beneath the girl.
“Grotto,” she said.
“That’s only six,” replied Millie.
“Did you even listen to the clue?”
“It’s gone,” she said.
“Here, if you will come with me, I will give you…this surprise.”
Ephyra opened an eye. Her niece was showing her the yellow plastic capsule from inside the egg.
“There’s never anything good in those.”
“Yeah, well,” she said.
Ephyra sighed, then propped herself on an elbow. “Okay give me a sec.”
Millie jumped, pumped her fist as she ran out. Ephyra reached for the bottle of water beside her bed and finished it, then sat like that for a while, facing the ceiling, the two pictures, half formed aligning, her hair held back with a hand. She tried the lamp; still no power. She turned her phone on. Six missed facetime calls from Tom. Plus three from yesterday, she thought. That makes nine. She dismissed the alert, turned the phone off again, put it in the drawer of the bedside table.
It was drizzling, the faint hiss and tap of it filled the bush and with the slow shawl of fog it brought to mind for Ephyra the sense, as a child, of emersion and submersion, of hiddenness among the bracken, between the trees and logs. Millie was telling her idea for a play, and Ephyra was keeping track of where they were going. The girl turned now and then to note her expression, turned with her whole body like a robot, and Ephyra turned to check the path, to note the trees, the way, pulling the hoods of her jackets aside, adjusting, readjusting. It made her feel trapped. She was cozy when she was unaware of how insulated and constrained she was. But she rarely was unaware. She was rarely free of herself, her body, the way she looked, her words, her hair, the way her lips were positioned, the subtle messages of her eyes. And inside it was the endless patter of a brain obsessed with systems and control. Not that she herself was obsessive, or controlling or anything; it was just that everything needed comment, everything needed to be compared and commended to the self that steered the rolling, windblown ritual of life. It never stopped. There was no escape. She had never in her adult life, she reminded herself, stepping over a piece of deadfall, done a single secret thing. She was always watching, and comparing.
“So what do you think?” said Millie.
“I think it’s doable,” said Ephyra, and went over in her head the key points of the play in case she should be quizzed. A stout man named Macleod, the patriarch, the owner of the tavern; Tony the melancholiac with the generous heart; the seamstress who had had the miscarriage, the…Millie had stopped walking.
“Now,” she said, turning left, then turning right. Ephyra, humouring her, was quiet. “I remember the last time I…” She picked at the bark of the tree beside her. Overhead, the sky groaned in the strange, portentous manner she was only increasingly unnerved by, but which Millie kept on dismissing. Wallace had said something about magnetisation and the coldfront. She didn’t know how they slept.
“Yes,” said Millie to herself. “Yes, yes.” She took the path right and they were moving again.
“But I”—Ephyra thought, going back to her gloss on vanity and control—“but I was a child once.”
She was sure of it.
But there, that child, even that was under a kind of control. The mind clawed back, took what it could of life lived and lost, and the things recovered were always the same—fragmentary, rehearsed. Sometimes things popped up, bits and pieces, flotsam from the wreck…jam and cruskits in the kitchen with her mother, feeding the new kids with milk from the baby’s bottle on a smokey December morning. Strictures from a teacher whose name she couldn’t recall, and the blackboard, the smell of the chalk from the dusters as she clapped them when it was her turn, her duty. And sitting cross-legged in the music room with the gum carpet, the gum everywhere, smooth and hard and black, those students she thought of that had gone before her, that had chewed gum bravely, and left it behind somehow.
But those memories didn’t return like the others. They were swarmed by the tide of sameness, the rules did not allow for their survival—the memories she had were hers forever; they had decided without her in some bland ceremony to be the indissoluble axioms of a self-structure secret even to herself—subliminal, subcutaneous. If she had ever been free, it was then, the actual then, and not the memory. The time, as a girl, when memories had not begun, and she was swept along by the spirit of God.
“Goodnight, goodnight,” Ephyra said.
Millie paused, turned her robot turn in her thick waterproof jacket and Ephyra smiled.
“There it is!” said Millie suddenly. There was a small clearing, and a circle of grey stones around a sodden, ashy pit.
“Don’t expect that you’ll get a fire started,” said Ephyra as they walked over.
“Pardon?” said Millie, turning.
“I said don’t expect that you’ll get a fire started. In this rain.”
“Didn’t granddad show you the special trick?”
“What special trick?”
Millie brought her backpack around to her front, then produced a small round tin.
Millie threw the tin and she caught it. “Fire gel,” said Millie. She flipped out the screwdriver of her multitool.
“Hold it,” she said, then popped it open.
She took the tin and placed it in the centre of the rock circle and lit it, and the fire swirled then hovered above the blue liquid, and she took tinder and newspaper from her backpack and built a small fire.
“This here should be okay,” she said, and stamped a long branch from a fallen tree, then sat and pulled away the bark. Defrocked, dry and smooth, the white wood burned well. Ephyra sat closer and admired what her niece had done so quickly. Had done so unproblematically.
Ephyra put a hand to her forehead. “What’s…French for ‘well done’?”
“‘Il est bien fait’?” said Millie.
“Bravo!” Ephyra exclaimed, then sighed.
She felt suddenly lonely, as though it, her loneliness, had finally descended, as though all it were waiting for was her immobility. She thought of Tom, and wondered what he was doing right at that very moment.
I am unwell.
Millie was rinsing a small billie can left behind from the last trip with water from her drink bottle. She filled it half-way then set it in the fire.
“What does this remind you of?” said Ephyra.
“Sing it,” said Ephyra. “Please.”
“You sing it.”
“No, I’m no good at singing, you sing it so well. Please.”
“Okay, let me catch my breath a little bit.”
She did, then she sang it, and it was as pure and sweet and very sad as she had remembered it, and the final note stretched itself wistfully across the fog and Ephyra wept. She felt deserted. She felt keenly in tune with the sadness, the loneliness and the desperateness of the drowned bushman.
“You know what song I like?” said Millie.
“What?” Ephyra croaked, and smiled, though it was hard.
“It’s a little ditty from the Dardanelles, a tribute to a certain Egyptian fille de joie.”
“Who’s that?” asked Ephyra; Millie had spoken with the deep, cultured accent of a British aesthete or scholar. She thought instantly of a teacher.
“I won’t say,” said Millie.
“Because, I don’t know why.”
“Well then sing the song.”
“I don’t want to anymore,” said Millie, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s really rude, I’m not supposed to.”
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” said Ephyra. She understood suddenly that the voice she had recreated did not belong to a living human. It was the voice of one of her mother’s dignitaries.
“You must hear some bad stuff when you’re…” She was at a loss as to how to phrase it. What was it in the first place that she did?—in that room. In the dark. Her mother would sleep, she knew that. Sometimes she would cry, and sometimes she would laugh, and then words would come, and Millie…Millie wrote. But sometimes, upright and conscious, she would speak, too. Sometimes she would simply hold the notepad to her mother’s hand, turn the pages when she needed. Sometimes she would simply sit and wait, would sing her songs or read the news.
Initiatrix. Interlocutrix. Apprentice. Famulus.
“It depends,” said Millie.
“On who’s visiting.”
The water began to boil. Millie took a couple of tin cups from her bag and dropped a tea bag in each, then set them down on the log she had been sitting on.
“This is gonna be fun,” she said as she approached the billy. Ephyra wasn’t sure what she was referring to; the pouring of the water or the whole thing. The whole thing was fun, being outside in the rain. Being alone with each other. Her niece took up the billy by its wire handle with a dishtowel then paused, calculated her next step.
“Should we scoop it out with the cups? The water?”
“No,” Ephyra said, “do you have another dishtowel?”
“In my bag.”
Ephyra went to it and searched through.
“The other pocket?” Millie said.
“Ah,” she said, and pulled it out. She folded it over a couple of times then stood there with it at the ready.
“Oh God,” said Millie, “how did the jolly swagman do it?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” said Ephyra, “Just hold it like you’re doing, bring it here, over to the cup.” She brought the steaming tin over to the log. Millie lowered herself incrementally by straddling her legs, her shoes sliding, wedging into the mud and leaf litter.
“Closer,” said Ephyra. She brought the billie to the lip of the first cup. “Good.”
With the folded towel Ephyra tilted the billie from the bottom and poured the first cup.
“Good,” she said again, “Now the next one.”
“Ah! I can’t see,” said Millie, and pulled down at the neck of her thick jacket.
“It’s okay,” said Ephyra, and poured the second cup. “Done.”
“Done?” said Millie.
“Should I put the billy back on the fire?”
“No, just leave it here, next to the log, it’ll be fine, just don’t trip on it.”
Millie carefully put the billy down at the end of the log.
“Whew,” she said. “I brought some little packets of cream if you want one?”
“Do you have any honey?”
“It’s okay, not a big deal, I’m gonna see what it’s like as is.”
“Okay me too,” said Millie, and sat down.
They blew on their tea for a long while, watching the fire and listening to the rain crackle on the acrylic canopies of their hoods. Thunder rolled gently overhead. Light and sound and motion had replaced the insulated silence of the house—Ephyra felt as though a crust had been broken underfoot, the pale caliche plain that was like thought suspended, its perfect flatness the autolysis of the regular forward process of life. The forest was like a vestibule for the house when she thought about it; a room discrete and interrupted. She had wandered many times alone around the tracks, had known it, and the trees, had spoken her thoughts as words reproved, taught of the simple, recursive order of her steps. She had made them dull and undisputed by her persistent iterations, by the labour of her mind and body, had crushed them.
It was her mother. It was her presence filling the house, her sickness and angst, the deep, night-long moaning that brought into conflict equally vivid images of pain and pleasure; an instepped back bowing out above the mattress, face locked in mortal anguish, and the twisted sheets and open-mouthed luxuriousness of orgasm, the inflorescence of some common or exotic ecstasy. And these were mysteries deep and unexplored, darkness of a species too small, too finely threaded to untangle—she knew she hated her, she knew she could not relax or be happy when her mother was having a good day or a good week, could only wait out the tension of a severe indignation, and breathe again when she was under, back inside that sickness, and she above, looking in.
When she was a girl Wallace let her sister stay home to take care of her mother sometimes, and they would go out to the creek, and Ephyra would catch tadpoles. He would warn her, when she crouched over the red water of the pond with her net, to hold her breath if she felt as though she were going to slip. She mustn’t, he said, at all costs breathe the water, or let it get up her nose—it was stagnant and full of germs. And the germs were like the insects that flirted and twirled around beneath the water—they were there in it too, though they were invisible. They latched onto the other little things, filled the emptiness with their secret business, and could make you sick, sick, sick. On that pond four-legged insects twitched and rippled the stiffness of the water’s surface, lay splayed for moments at a time to drift, and shadowed the shallower parts with their legs, the soft depressions of the water that looked like other little leaves on the sooty floor. Her father would hold her and she would reach for the tadpole she wanted—the one with the little legs, or the one whose name might be Rick, or the lonely one by the moss of the log, who she would give another life to, and watch become a frog.
When they got home one day her mother was looking at the sun, and that was the last day they went tadpoling. Her father had left the car engine on, and she, holding her jam jar with the hole in the top, squeezing it for the warmth of the glass, had watched her father run to the veranda where her mother stood slackly by a post, pale and glistening and hollow in her satin nightgown, and he had shouted something, or else a noise had slipped from him, and he took her and held her like a limp little mannequin and carried her inside. Melanie had been in big trouble.
Ephyra took a sip of her tea.
“How is it?” said Millie.
“It’s tangy, but it’s okay.”
Millie sipped her own.
“Hot,” she said.
The fire hissed with a sudden pattering of water from above, a cluster of leaves one drop too heavy.
“Why does grandma cry?” said Millie.
“You know,” said Ephyra, frowning.
“No,” said Millie, “I mean beside all the other stuff. When she’s not dreaming or reading for someone. When she’s just normal. When no one else is with her, I can hear her from my room crying. It’s not loud, but I can hear it.”
Ephyra sipped her tea. She waited for an inexplicable rush of adrenaline to pass. An annoyance—it had surged up to take its opportunity at that moment, and she didn’t want to speak at all. A few more moments passed, Ephyra felt her heart slow to its normal rhythm and she cleared her throat.
“Your grandmother…had a stroke Millie, there are a lot of things that have changed about her body. We just have to care for her the best we can.”
It was a big lie. A big lie.
As though she had ever cared for her in her adult life. As though she, like her father, like her sister were investing in her death with a store of feeling that deeper and deeper inward yielded grief of darker shades. As though she were taxed by the ordeal of dying the way it was universally agreed one should be. All she had was a great swollen mass of indifference separating her from her mother. She didn’t care for her. She understood that she should have feelings for her, because she was sick. It was unnerving. The thought of her mind frittering and fraying into nothing. And the infections, the seizures, the cramps, the bile; but inside, when she analysed that part of her that wasn’t doing its job properly.…Mère, je suis saturé par votre maladie. (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) Père, je noie!
Her indifference startled her. Her contempt.
Barbarous bitch, she thought. Cruel witch.
Millie looked into her cup. It was a relief somehow to think that Millie knew, that she could see right through her and didn’t pretend to not know. She could count on her being a child when everyone insisted on being grown-ups.
“She doesn’t remember my name at all now,” said Millie, “I have to tell her.”
Ephyra said nothing. Millie shivered as she held her tea. Her hands were wrapped around the little steel mug and she leaned closer into the fire.
The rain was gradually building. Drops hissed on the coals and the fire leant this way, then that way, and fluttered. Together, without saying it, they each decided that it was time to pack. They kicked dirt at the fire and when the light was gone completely they were alone with the cold.
“This way,” said Ephyra. Millie followed, pulled the straps of the backpack in toward her and huddled against the rain. Thunder broke and rolled slowly out, the rain began in earnest, was thick, slanting in with the wind, and the din of the sudden rainstorm filled the bush. Behind her Millie screamed then laughed, and Ephyra urged her on. Mud underfoot. A haze of grey. At a point Ephyra stopped and checked her surroundings, searched for the track. Rills were forming, flowing downhill, gushing over rocks.
“Shit,” said Ephyra. She wiped the rain from her eyes, her brows. Her socks were beginning to soak. She squinted out at the trees.
“This way!” she shouted, running, ducking through branches, stepping over the deadfall.
Lighting flashed, made the rain like a shower of flint, crashed in her ears and trailed out in a long, low rumble. Ephyra saw the track.
“This way!” she shouted again. She turned. Millie was gone. Ephyra’s mind went suddenly opaque, a gasp rose up in her throat and she held onto the tree beside her.
She shouted her niece’s name. The storm had become like a wall. A grey blanket of rain surrounded her. She shouted again, ran, retraced the path toward the clearing, searched the bush in every direction. Ephyra slipped, in a rush of panic reached for a branch but missed. She fell backward. There was an instant of luminosity, of whiteness and clarity, the fleeting counterpoint to the midnight black of unconsciousness.
Ephyra woke, rolled to her side carefully in the mud and stood. As she approached the track she heard the sound of her name being shouted through the rain—her father and sister, the flash of torchlight.
Slowly, nauseously she stepped out from the brush, squinted and raised a hand as one of the lights hit her. Her sister ran toward her.
“She’s here, Wallace! I found her!” Melanie shouted.
“Where’s Millie?” said Ephyra.
“She fine, she’s inside,” said Melanie, “she’s okay, are you okay? What happened?”
“I slipped,” said Ephyra. She felt the back of her head. It was tender, slightly swollen.
“You hit your head?” Melanie lifted an eyelid and Ephyra pushed her away.
“I’m fine, Mel.” Her father was walking back towards the house. “Yeah, thanks Dad,” she said.
Ephrya showered in candlelight. Before the vanity she towelled her hair, stood close to the candle and warmed her hands by it. She took up a mirror and held it up behind her head, probed about, angled in toward the light. A lump, a small cut. Holding the mirror up above her head Ephyra reached and took a couple of swabs and pressed lightly against the wound.
“Jesus,” she said quietly to herself. She searched the cabinet. Betadine. She opened it, soaked another swab and dabbed the small cut, turned the swab over, pressed. Her focus drifted—she gazed into the deep jade tunnel of the competing mirrors, at the candle flames spirited by turns further and further into an actual infinity. Through the swirling fog, dimly to the right, some shadow that didn’t belong. Ephyra turned, saw nothing. She dressed, blew out the candle, then left.
Melanie was in the office, sorting through a stack of paper by torchlight. She jumped and swore when Ephyra announced herself.
“Sorry,” said Ephyra.
“You’re okay, Fie,” she said, and laughed, pressing a hand to her heart. She put down the torch. “So worried about you,” she said, and brought Ephyra in for a hug. Ephyra went rigid, then sunk and clung tiredly for a moment, enjoying the warmth of her sister’s large body. “So worried,” Melanie said again quietly.
“What’re you doing?” said Ephyra when the hug had ended.
“Oh,” she said, sighing, “fighting a losing battle really.” She stood arms akimbo and looked vaguely around. “I might have to wait until the next visit.”
Ephyra took the torch and cast it slowly around the room. A general clutter of folders, notebooks, looseleaves, boxes. She went to the built-in wardrobe and crouched, lifted the lid of a box. A letter from the tax department. Notes from a meeting at her father’s old work. A recipe book interleaved with years-old receipts, scraps of things—a phone number, a coaster. She closed the book and pulled out a crayon drawing pressed between a folded sheet of baking paper. Frayed nylon twine made a blond bush of hair for a little girl and her mother. She laughed.
She passed it up to her sister. Melanie leant against the windowsill and read:
“‘On the weekend Mum and I are going to the dam. I like the dam because it is fresh water. Fresh water is not salty. Mum will paint, and I get to play. Ephyra, seven.’
“Aw,” said Melanie. “Gotta keep that.” She put it down somewhere and Ephyra crossed her legs and looked back into the box.
“What do you want with these? said Ephyra, holding them up in a fan.
“Ahh…the bin, unfortunately.” Her sister repeated the last word with a sigh, emphasising the syllables, trundling over them with a distrait kind of involvement. Ephyra laid the postcards down beside her and went back to the box.
More bills. Opened envelopes. A manilla folder—school records, year ten. She flipped through the pages, catching words here and there. Keen. Challenge. Excel. Trouble.
“Chaos,” she said, and shut the folio.
“We’ll get there,” said Melanie. She was marking something down in pencil on a clipboard.
Ephyra put the lid back on the box and pushed it aside. A low rectangular box with extra cords, mobile phone chargers, a keyboard. Ephyra pulled a clear plastic wireless handset from the tangle, chuckled.
“Yes,” said Melanie. “I remember the look on your face when you unwrapped it.”
Ephyra held it to her ear as though someone on the other line would speak. Someone from long ago.
“I remember…who was it?”
“Justin,” said Ephyra, covering her face.
“Justin…” Melanie caricatured the boy, his deep voice and half-lidded gaze: “‘Uh, it’s, uh, Justin? Is, uh, Ephyra there?’
“‘Ephyra! Pick up your phone!’”
Ephyra laughed, Melanie laughed too and shushed her.
“Didn’t you tell him you were late once?” said Melanie.
“Oh my God, yes, don’t remind me.”
“And what did he say?”
“’Uh, no worries,’” they both said in unison.
Ephyra put the phone back in the box.
“Why was I so in love with him. What was wrong with me.”
“You were young,” said Melanie.
Ephyra was suddenly scared. Suddenly unnerved at the prospect that the next thing she pulled from the cupboard, the next thing the torch lit up would take her back, back, back. Into the dust, and into the strangeness of other minds that she had forgotten—hers; people she was once, ways she used to feel.
She stood slowly, put the flashlight down on the desk. Melanie was still leaning by the window, reading in the twilight from an uncrumpled napkin. Something.
“Aww,” said Melanie, “You’re going to bed, sweetie?”
“Yeah,” said Ephyra. “It’s been good seeing you.”
“Goodnight my baby,” she said, and hugged her tightly. “It was good to see you too.”
Melanie held her at arm’s distance and peered at her, her hands in her own, thumbing the engagement ring. She was weeping quietly. “You did it,” she said. “I’m happy for you, baby.”
Ephyra lay in bed with her laptop. She had distracted herself from the pain of the looming review deadline with Wuthering Heights, while the book in question sat cover-down beneath the bed. Now she watched her screensaver, allowed it to drowse her with its swaying, bohemian dance, swirling, uncomplicated, unmotivated. The rain had stopped, drops sounded here and there without a pattern, slowed. The windchime slowed. There was movement in her mother’s room. Her father was in there. His voice moved through the walls in a low hum.
The computer went black. Ephyra shut the lid and put it down beneath the nightstand. She flipped her pillow over then lay on her stomach, stayed like that for a minute or two enjoying the cold linen against her face. Her phone was still in the drawer. She took it out and waited for it to start up, flipped through an album of her and Tom.
The phone too went black. The battery had died, and Ephyra lay the thing down on the nightstand then pulled the sheets over her face.
First there is darkness. The coldness of the water presses in on me and I feel heavy of the weight of it. Along my skin, around it, throughout it is the denseness and the sharpness and the vastness of an ocean. Up is ocean, all around is ocean, down is a darkness that sinks and sinks forever. There is a cry; it is slow, sad and very loud. As the sound approaches it swells the space around me, I feel distended, like I’m spilling over and through my body like a rush of dread the inflection of the cry is not final but querying, tracing my nerves to their ends. All is vibration, and I quiver. My body was new, and now it is screaming. My body is screaming and I feel a fire inside my chest. I am travelling. The gradeless shadow of the water is fleshed with grey light and tone, and I am climbing up through the water, upward, upward. The sound erupts again like a wound and swiftly scales the drone of the echo that has been stretching on and on. Higher, higher, higher the trumpeting sound of a great thing weeping on the blackness of the ocean attends the first, and another, a deep rattle from somewhere beneath or beside me strafes the frigid ocean in waves. Others join, and the chorus of the giants fills the ocean, piercing, groaning, warbling, crying. I see a light above me, dim and grey, the shadows thin and my face is suddenly awash with a different water. I breathe, I breathe the water and I fill with it, and the new water saves me. It flows gently over me and my skin constricts, I am drawn in like a sheet and I tremble. The noise of it is constant, clear and empty, starved like the starkness of the land that lies in solitude beyond. Above me the white speck is small and distant and bright, is alone, and its water flows over the grey void of the flatland in a still, clear and perpetual vision of itself. The third water infuses the second, stretches itself full and nude along the first, raises up in circles around me that spread then shimmer and disappear. The light, the small white spot persuades the dark and makes a dim image of the world. I move toward it, the unmoving mass of other stuff, and I fill more and more with the sharp, clear life of the air until it fills my head, and all my body burns with it. Beneath me is the land. The smooth, firm altar of the ocean has risen now and bowing, resting my head on the shingle of the sacred earth I empty myself of the first water. It falls from me, it shoots up through me in thrills of pain and pressure, and when I stand, and turn, I see the endless awe of it and weep.
Pearl ran a hand down her dress in the mirror. It was the lace dress with the eton collar. She felt the cool smoothness of the white pearl snap fastener. She undid it and let the silver necklace with the cross drop beneath. She pressed the cross against her skin with the heel of her palm, absorbing its coldness into her chest for a moment before buttoning her collar. Over the dress she put on her hoody, then her parka, her thick cotton gloves and meditated on how fat it made her look and feel, how poor her family was, how much she hated the whole thing, her body, and the house, and going to church.
Abruptly her mother opened the door and leaned in.
“Are you ready?”
“You can’t wear those,” her mother said.
“Wear what?” she said, turning.
“Those gloves, they’re filthy.”
“Then I won’t go.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Pearl muttered, casting her eyes downward, inching the gloves off finger by finger.
“Run downstairs and ask your sister for a pair of gloves, and hurry up.”
“No!” said Pearl. “I’m not going down there!”
“Why on earth not?” her mother demanded.
“You know why! Veda hates me! She wants to kill me!”
“What is this? When?”
“All the goddamn time! She’s never loved me! You don’t love me! I don’t even have a family, all I have is Finn!”
Her mother charged into the room. She grabbed at a wrist and held it high, grasping at a glove to wrench it off. Pearl struggled and her mother reached around to hit her backside with the flat of her palm, swift, repeated strokes, some of which glanced and zipped along the polyester of her coat or angled in at the intended mark with dull, cushioned blows, and others that landed, at the thigh and buttocks, chimed in round bursts and rung reverberant with her screams. When Pearl cowered beside her bed her mother seized the other wrist, limp now and yielded, and pared the glove away like the skin of a hare, with a firm wrenching motion that made the glove a small, bundled, five-studded thing that she took up with the other, and with a final gaping stare, her pupils quivering small and nervous in the bright pink tangle of her eyes, she turned and strode swiftly out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
The car idled in the driveway as her mother scraped ice from the windshield. Pearl wandered the yard with the sleeves of her hoody pulled loose over her cold hands and fingers. Behind the house was a stack of chopped firewood covered by a piece of tarpaulin. She looked at it and after a few moments registered that her father must have returned the previous night. At once memories returned to her of shouting, of quarrelling between her mother and father, and her rousing for moments at a time between dreams to hear them. She remembered the dream about her father in the woods, and the Christmas tree that he had dragged behind him, and the silver ring that he had given her, and her gaze moved slowly from the wood to the round window of the attic above her.
“Your father is staying with Uncle Blake,” her mother said as she drove. “He’ll be back and forth, Pearl, he’s got a lot to do at the old house. There’s a lot of stuff that will simply have to be sold or handed on.”
“What about Christmas eve? Is he going to be here on Tuesday?” Pearl didn’t care about the stuff getting sold or thrown away.
“I don’t know, Pearl.”
Pearl twisted to see Finn. He was squinting out the white window and drifting.
The words of the Domine, Non Sum Dignus hummed in the church and between Pearl’s lips, and the sounds of the toneless murmurs of the people lapsed to solemn silence.
Behind her someone was only now entering. She turned and saw the family; a man in a tan corduroy blazer and plaid, and his son and little girl. Pearl recognised the face of the boy. When she turned back and closed her eyes in prayer she collected the various shadowy sentiments and associations of his presence and waded backward through her memory with it, holding it like a domino over the various possibilities. She turned around again as the father ushered his small family into a back pew and she remembered. It was the boy with the scarf; the one that had stopped on his bike to look at the house that day. He was just as cute as she remembered. And tall. Pearl felt the brief flutter of a heart caught entirely off guard, and gasped when her mother gave her a firm push in her side to exit the pew for the Eucharist.
In the churchyard Pearl stood with her hands in her pockets and watched Finn play with the other children a winter game they had made together one morning and named ‘Run For Cover’, in which one person would take some snow, two fistfuls and fling it high into the air, and all would have to run for cover—because the white dust that fell, that swept slowly, gently with the wind in diaphanous sheets and shimmered would be powdered glass. If the snow was clumpy it could be some other diabolic substance like shit, or like acid rain. When the snow was wet, Pearl would imagine centipedes, because Veda one day at the old house had been bitten by one, an unusually large one, on her ankle. It had swelled and become red, and she sweat and screamed into her hair with the pain. Her father had sucked the venom out of the two small wounds, had spit it into his mug, a milky white that stuck in strands to his moustache, had filled one of the large metal mixing bowls with hot water from the bath tap. Pearl had watched—Veda sat at the dining table in the kitchen all night with her foot in the bowl, moaning and salivating, and her father each hour until the next day had changed the water, keeping it steaming hot and clean, and for the few moments in which her foot was denied the water Veda had shut her eyes and arched her neck toward the ceiling and hissed, and sobbed, and Pearl thought it was the most horrible thing she had ever seen. She had also felt close to her that night in a way she hadn’t before, and probably because her guard had lapsed entirely and she was weak like a little child—the vindictiveness, the rivalry, the hatred had dissolved into the pain, and the pain had dissolved into a kind of drowse, and she felt as though she could have walked right up to her there in the kitchen, and hugged her, and kissed her forehead, and she would not have paid her any mind.
The children now were screaming “Crack cocaine!” because one boy had suggested it and it had spread like a general panic and inspired squeals of terror and laughter. Finn cleverly hid beneath a stone bench before the large coloured statue of the Virgin Mary, and Pearl had watched from beside a tree as he huddled, cradled himself, caught her eye and beamed an excited smile.
Pearl searched for the boy with the olive skin but had lost track of him. She watched as people exited now and then from the church basement, wrapping themselves in their coats, calling their children.
Pearl started, turned.
It was Theodore.
“Oh. Hello,” she said.
His two friends as usual hung back, waiting as two spectators in a cockfight for the first spill of blood, or indeed like two roosters waiting on deck, pecking around, taking jabs at passing children. Theodore had the look of a Bond villain; he was pale, with sharp, pinched features, nostrils that flared slightly upwards and contributed to the impression that he was constantly amused, in a sneering, hawkish way. He even had an accent. He licked at the dried yogurt frosted to his lips and to the indistinct fluff of a premature moustache.
“Hello that’s right,” he said, and unhooding the mitten of his left hand reached for a band of hair laying across her shoulder. Pearl cautiously watched his face as he felt it between his fingers.
“It’s lovely,” he said. “May I smell your hair?”
“If you want,” Pearl muttered. His friends chuckled to each other as Theodore, with mock decorum bowed forward and lightly brushed the end of a length of her straight, blonde hair across his nose, playing it around his lips. Finn was playing again with the rest of the children. He could not see her. She searched for her mother. She looked down at the parting of Theodore’s hair, at his white scalp—it was strange to see him so close and vulnerable. She wondered what would happen if she gave him a great push and ran away, perhaps back into the church or down the stairs and into the church basement.
“Wonderful,” he said, straightening. “I wonder what your asshole smells like.”
One of the boys roared out a laugh and did jumping jacks as the other begged to know what had been said.
Pearl’s expression slackened.
“Theodore, do you understand how wrong that is?” she said.
“It’s Fyodor,” he said. “With a ‘fff’.”
Wordlessly they inspected each other’s eyes for a few moments. The keen, unperturbed lance of a face that safeguarded a host of ideas and memories and perversities unknown to her was profoundly confronting. In the end she wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking at.
“What do you want, Fyodor?”
“I want you, my lady,” he whispered.
“Well I can’t help you with that.”
As Pearl turned he grabbed her around the waist and heaved her off the ground. When she went to scream he wrapped a mitten over her mouth and the two crones grabbed her legs and began carrying her. In the swift, spinning blur she glanced around her, searching, but she was one twirling thing in a ballroom of dancers, and nobody noticed. She was being dragged into the snowy thicket. Fyodor and his friends laughed and joked in their own tongue as they carried her, and in the stiff dead grass and twigs a shoe was pulled away. In the strange, slack netherworld of a sudden calm she took note of it there, told herself that when it was over she would go and take it up and never wear it again for the rest of her life.
She felt her head thud against something hard and she realised she was on the earth. Her head was propped against a log. Fyodor swung a leg around and sat on her thighs.
“Now,” he said, and plied around for the zip to her parka. “Like a Christmas present,” he laughed to his friends as the parted jacket revealed another. He slowly unzipped her hoody and whistled as the delicate, black lace dress beneath was revealed.
“Yes, yes I see now,” he said. “Very nice.” He felt the material with the backs of his fingers, thumbed the collar. “You see I like to touch.” One of the boys crouched beside Pearl to get a closer look and Pearl stared into his eyes. He looped a finger beneath her necklace. Pearl went to speak, to say that it was a gift from her aunty and that he couldn’t have it, but it was like a dream, and she had no ability. The words fought for form, resolved, went up, and bounced off a kind of ceiling inside her. Within moments they were powerless, defrocked and gelatinous, like the movements that might be made but had lost their constitution and sunk to welter in their formless pool of other subjunctives. There in the dark. Fyodor undid the snap of her collar and the boy lifted out the silver necklace.
“You pray with this?” the boy said.
Pearl said nothing.
“Do you kiss it?” Fyodor chimed in. Pearl stared up into his pale blue eyes. “Can I kiss it?”
Fyodor held the chain up between their faces and leaned slowly in. The cross bounced lightly against her lips and Fyodor closed his eyes as he came closer, then pressed his dry lips against hers, the cold metal of the cross between.
There was a blur and a sound like a bright, hollow knock and Pearl’s nose smarted sharply. She looked and Fyodor lay on his side, stunned.
“What is this?” said the boy standing over him, panting. “Are you guys in on this?” he said, turned to the other two.
“We were just playing a game!” said one of them.
“Doesn’t look like a game,” the boy said calmly. He puffed out a hard, deep cloud of steam. “How about you?” he said, crouching down to meet Pearl’s gaze. “Is this a game?”
It was the boy with the olive skin. She looked into his hazel eyes. At his soft, pink lips.
“I knew you’d come,” she whispered drowsily, and he gave a curious smirk before lifting her up onto her feet. He dusted off the soil and snow from her jacket with a few brisk swipes.
Fyodor began to cry, pressing a hand to his temple.
“Grow up, Herb,” the boy said.
“Yeah, grow up Herb,” said Pearl, and chuckled. Her saviour made a spontaneous, combative gesture at one of the boys that made them scramble suddenly to get the downed Fydor to his feet, and they blundered back through the woods together.
“What if he tells?” Pearl said. The boy laughed.
“Well we’ll be ready. You lost your shoe?”
“Yeah, it’s over there,” she said. The boy made a start but Pearl took his hand. “I don’t want to go back there yet.”
“Your foot’s going to get cold.”
“It’s already cold. And wet.” Pearl hobbled on one leg, holding onto the boy and lowered herself slowly onto the log. The boy sat down beside her. “I just want to make sure it’s safe. My mom’s still inside I think.…” She fumbled for words.
“Oh no,” Pearl said, twisting around the pantyhose of her left leg. There were at least four long runs along her calf, as well as a bright red scratch. She dabbed at the blood with a tissue from her pocket.
The boy pulled a handful of M&M’s from his jacket, offered it to her. His fingers were bloodless and pale in the cold, his palm like a firm little gold dish. Pearl cupped her hands and accepted them, and they ate quietly.
“Did you go to Witchbrook Elementary?” she said.
“How old are you?”
“So you go to the high school? In Witchbrook?”
“Nope,” he laughed.
“Oh. So you live here?”
“In Witchbrook then?”
Pearl thought about it.
“You do homeschool?”
“I have to go to Witchbrook. The elementary, to finish grade six. I want to know what it’s like first.”
“It seems okay. I have a couple of friends that went there.”
“Oh. What do they say about it?”
“They say it’s okay.”
“Oh. I hope I don’t get a shit teacher. I never see you at church.”
“We come sometimes. Maybe you just missed me. I spend some weekends with my mom in Boston.”
“I saw you, didn’t I? On your bike?”
“Yeah that was me. I remember you.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Why do people look at the house?”
“Like, look at it. Like it’s haunted or something.”
“Because…I don’t know why.”
“Why were you looking at it?”
“Because that guy’s been living in there for so long. It’s weird seeing the house all wide open like that. He never had the gate open before. The windows. There used to be huge parties there. Before I was born.”
“Really? What kind of parties?”
“The ones that only grown-ups are allowed to go to. Kai Rudy used to be friends with Judge Korbin.”
“Really? Like actually Kai Rudy?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I want to go to a big party like that.”
“I don’t think you do. Not if you knew…”
“That there wouldn’t be anything you’d like.”
“I think there would be,” she said, and ate her M&M’s quietly for a while.
“A man stopped by yesterday morning in a red pick up truck. He asked for all our names. Me and my brother.”
“That was my Dad.”
“Yeah, look, that guy?” he pointed through the woods at the church. The man with the corduroy blazer had his hands in his pockets, was talking with a woman by the church wall as they watched over the children playing.
“Oh,” said Pearl. “He looks different. His glasses are different.”
“Yeah, he wears the big ones when he’s going for wood.”
“So that’s your sister?
“How old is she?”
“Three. Do you have a sister?”
“Yeah. I have a half-sister.”
“On your mother’s side?”
“Are you guys close?”
“No. It’s shit. She hates me. She’s never loved me.”
“And you want her to love you.”
“Of course,” said Pearl, flicking the last M&M into the snow.
“I had an older half-sister.”
“Really? What happened?”
“She lives with my mom now. I see her sometimes.”
“What was she like? Did she hate you?”
“No. She was just angry. And messed up.”
“Why was she messed up?”
“Because she had a lot of problems. She didn’t get loved like she was meant to.”
“How do you know that?”
“She told me one time.”
“What did she say?”
“We were saying goodbye. It was March, I think, a few years ago. We were standing in the yard, and everything was ready and packed, and my mom was waiting for her. She gave me a hug all of a sudden, and she was crying. She told me about her dad, and I don’t remember exactly about that, but I remember she said, ‘Human affection disgusts me’. She said it like she was really sad, she wasn’t angry or anything. And I knew then that she couldn’t help it, and I forgave her.”
“‘Human affection disgusts me,’” Pearl repeated quietly, and in her head it was Veda saying those words, with black mascara running. It made so much sense.
Pearl jumped. The man with the glasses was shouting brusquely in their direction, shouting his son’s name.
“I gotta go,” said the boy, standing.
“Thanks for the M&M’s,” Pearl said, looking up, but she wanted to thank him for the other thing.
“No problem,” he said, and began to jog through the woods. He turned.
“Good luck out there!” he shouted, and continued on until he met his dad at the church.
Burn the ripe fruit!
Blend the dread crocus red!
Drink drachms of it from the cruet,
Sweet nectar of the dead!
Asa ate dinner in silence with his father while his little sister ate in the living room, before the murmur and glow of the television. Afterward he joined her, to watch what she watched, and she knelt before the low coffee table and did her drawings. When his father came downstairs Asa watched him in the reflection of a glass of water slip the key to the office beneath the felt pouch for a missing pair of spectacles, on the top shelf of the cabinet.
Asa did the dishes and watched his father, dressed in his thick cotton running clothes, set the timer on his watch in the back yard, then begin to jog at a steady pace away, up the hill, into the woods, the fog. Asa carried his sleeping sister up the stairs and laid her down in her bed. Drew the covers and set the radiator.
He turned the key to his father’s office, pressing the door upward and inward slightly, because he found that it dampened the squeak. Inside, his father’s desk lamp was on. Many of his father’s books, his folders, forgotten projects, familiar trinkets were already packed and ready for the move. There were pale squares on the walls where his old photos had been—of he and Asa’s mother at university, and several of him as a baby, his sister, relatives back home. The colour portrait of a weepy Saint Rose of Lima above the desk remained. There was something alarming about seeing the room reduced the way it was. It reminded him of when he had visited his grandmother after several years, and lying in her bed in the full light of day she was like an exposed mole rat, was frail and yellow and empty. Asa had the miserable sense of his father being likewise diminished—all of his work, his life for as long as he could remember was in this room. It was him. Asa approached quietly and opened the simple manila folder laying there in the light, thumbed through a few of the loose notes. He closed it and opened a thick, glossy textbook where it had been bookmarked. Turned a few pages. He closed it again quickly, worked through the sudden shock of adrenaline and replaced the vivid imprint of the image in his mind by focussing on the physical things around him.
He wandered over to the scrapbook section of the bookcase, took one at random.
Someone Is Killing the Little Children.
Beneath the cut-out headline, a greyscale photo of a woman sitting at the edge of her couch, looking glaze-eyed down to her feet, the cigarette between her fingers smouldered to its end. The caption read: Faye Munson, 39, mother of the missing girl Bridget Munson, 9, says the truth regarding her daughter’s disappearance is being covered up by police. A short article followed with a hotline number. His father’s name gave him a small, familiar jolt when he passed his eye over it.
Asa slowly turned the pages, stopped at some pictures of bones half-buried in soil. A cheekbone. A tooth.
No Progress in Identifying Rush’s Field Jane Doe.
A clump of hair from the river, tangled with what looked like a carburettor. A rubber-gloved detective holding them apart like cheese from a pizza. The bloated body of a pig, also from the river, split open like a frankfurter from jowl to sheath. Detectives covering noses.
Offal Plaguing Local Residents, Police Alike.
Asa closed the scrapbook, slid it back in place.
He slipped out one of the folders and flipped through the pages of negatives in their plastic slips. He closed it and exchanged it for another, flipped it to the page he was looking for. He gently wheeled his father’s chair to the lightbox and turned it on. He slipped out one of the dark red strips and laid it on the glass. With his father’s loupe he followed the images along. The circular driveway was stuffed with Cadillacs, MG’s, Limousines. Women stepping out in fur stoles and bright jewellery. He pulled out another strip and located the face that had always been a source of fascination for him. The slightly asiatic features, the flat nose, the happy-go-lucky smile. He was pointing something out to the man who greeted him at the door. Dinner jackets. Pocket handkerchiefs. The man with the cigar held the esteemed guest’s hand in both of his, grinned fiercely behind a long cigar. The next photo revealed the man’s date—the thing he had apparently been pointing out so excitedly—a buxom, almost overweight woman, approaching in her flowing white taffeta empire dress. Asa lingered on the woman’s cleavage for a moment, then focussed on her face. It was strange to him that she should be left to reach the door by herself. It was as though she were a new toy. But it was a well-known secret that Kai Rudy was a philanderer, that he had lines of young women that waited outside his hotel room anywhere he went, that he devoured every and any kind of woman—young, old, infamous, obscure. He was only a straight, white monogamous Roman Catholic when he met important people like the president, but even then it was a kind of understood thing—a joke. Asa continued through the photos until he found the one he knew to be the closest and most front-on of Kai Rudy in the set. He looked into his eyes and tried to imagine him as a monster. There was a wall he could not cross. He wondered if there really were people who would want to do…that. Or whether it was something like a great myth. Whether someone like a federal judge…a famous entertainer…a man of the cloth…men and women. Whether that was something in their heart that they wanted to do, together at a party. Sharing in each other’s fluids. Passing around cups of milk and semen. Having animals. Crucifying little children.
Asa put the negatives back in their slips and put the folder away, turned off the lightbox. He sat in the dimness of the room for a moment with his eyes closed, steeling himself against something. A pressure to relent. To forget. He wanted so much at times to throw out his father’s work. To burn it all and rid him of it. There was a great burden he feared at times he had inherited. Of knowing, when others didn’t. Of being an enemy of the world.
He knelt before one of the cardboard packing boxes and opened it, then dug down to pull out a handful of crushed, dogeared spiral-bound notebooks. He leafed carefully through a couple, closing them and putting them aside in order. Working through them—the diagrams, the notes, the small inconsequential doodles—it brought Asa back to a time when it was all darkness and strangeness to him, simply the rush of doing wrong, of being in his father’s office with the smell of books, of carpet, his father’s studious breath, not like the breath when he was laughing, or when he was giving a word of warning. His still and troubled breath, and the sweat of a secret fear.
Asa stopped. It was one of the aerial trace drawings of the river. There was a rough compass drawn on the lower right, and his father had drawn a winding snake that went from the Korbin place to the church in town, across the river, directly east. The broad open mouth of the snake was swallowing the house, and the tail was wrapped around the church.
From the bottom draw of his father’s cabinet Asa took the rectangular black bag with the padded shoulder strap, the long, slender black bag, the black, linen-bound book with its single, bold gilt cross on the front and left the office.
The spiral staircase that led to the cupola in the roof was tight and deathly quiet. A corner of the bag clunked against one of the wooden balusters as he ascended and he stood silently for a moment, held his breath with the bag firm against him, listening for a response. He continued upwards and entering, checked the sloping rafters of the conical roof with a hand in the dark. The cupola was about seven and a half foot diametrically, a hexagon, with six double-hung windows, most of which were weathered shut. Asa put down the bag and worked the old bronze latch of one of the windows back and forth, then pried it upward. He took up the wooden rod on the sill and secured the window open. He unfolded the wooden chair that leant against one of the walls and put it before the window, but didn’t sit.
He stood, closed his eyes. The scentless winter air on his face was brisk, and made him quiver, once from the top of his spine to his feet, because it was the kind of cold that reminded him that animals out there were alone, and that one day he would be alone, too.
He kneeled. He opened his father’s Raccolta and quickly found the passage he needed.
“Angele Dei,” he intoned quickly, quietly, “qui custos es mei, me tibi commissum pietate superna illumina, custodi, rege, et guberna. Amen.”
He closed the book. Waited a moment. Closed his eyes.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.” Again he waited in silence, his eyes closed. “O Father, O Son, O Holy Ghost, O Holy Trinity, O Jesus, O…” he paused, running the list over silently between his lips. “O…O ye blessed Angels of God, all ye Saints of Paradise, men and women, obtain for me these graces, which I ask through the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ:
“Ever to do the holy will of God.
“Ever to live in union with God.
“Not to think of anything but God.
“To love God alone.
“To do all for God.
“To seek only the glory of God.
“To sanctify myself solely for God.
“To know well my own utter nothingness.
“Ever to know more and more the will of my God…”
Asa was hot beneath his jacket. He felt blindly at a prickling somewhere beneath the layers around his collarbone and thought fearfully and carefully about his next words. The image from the book returned, a brilliant pink and red, animated itself in the darkness, and he was tempted to open his eyes.
“Please protect me Lord; Holy Spirit protect me,” he whispered solemnly, spontaneously, then opened his eyes.
He bowed his head once more and made the sign of the cross.
The lens of the camera was bulky and long. Asa had set it up on its tripod and it protruded a good inch out the window. Sitting cowboy on the chair, the hood of his jacket up, he hunched and looked through the prismatic reflecting viewfinder—a special attachment that clipped onto the hotshoe for waist-level viewing. He had seen Witchbrook dozens of times through the little box, leisurely following its folds and textures, the bright glistening of the river, its changing hues clear and dark, and the leaves that surfed the endless tide and sank. Bears sometimes would mope along by the bank, bobcats, and hawks perched in the trees and watched. The high school was aglitter with familiar faces each day, and he’d watch for trouble, but say nothing, and feel strangely tired when the day was over. Tonight the crippled stalks of corn in the fields splintered through the snow like the fractured bones of an ancient dead thing, and beyond them the great white spires of the softwood groves had the faintly troubling, druidic presence of an assembly of sleeping godmen. Other than that the world seemed simple and unadorned. In winter he felt like he could understand it all. Tonight, he decided—knew—was the last night.
He floated the eye of the camera out over the soft yellow glints of houses, closing slowly in on the opposite hill a half mile away south. When he reached the house and zoomed he saw her right away, even before focussing the camera. She was dressed in her pink bedtime romper, passing back and forth like a tiny pink vision between the blinks of the windows. He snapped down the viewer’s loupe and she leapt neatly into the present; she was pulling things from her packing boxes and finding places for them in her room. She looked distressed in a secret, half-conscious way. Like she was missing something.
“Pearl,” he said. She stopped before the dresser. He zoomed the camera closer, into the mirror, focussed. Her face was quiet.
“Pearl,” he whispered again. Pearl closed her eyes. She was calm and tired, and Asa knew he had to work quickly.
He took up his father’s raccolta and got up, stood beside the camera. He looked out toward the house in the south. He opened the book, then looked down into the prism’s image, focussing on the young girl in the mirror.
“O glorious Archangel St Michael, prince of the heavenly host, be our defence in the terrible warfare which we carry on against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, spirits of evil. Come to the aid of man, whom God created immortal, made in his own image and likeness, and redeemed at a great price from the tyranny of the devil. Fight this day the battle of the Lord, together with the holy angels, as already thou hast fought the leader of the proud angels, Lucifer, and his apostate host, who were powerless to resit thee, nor was there place for them any longer in Heaven. That cruel, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil or Satan, who seduces the whole world, was cast into the abyss with his angels.”
In the mirror Pearl still had her eyes closed, and her breaths were deep and slow, and she swayed gently before the dresser. Asa was pushing his words through something dense and freight with an approaching spectre of power, a swift, roiling crescendo like the breathing of a distant storm. He corrected his slightly crumpled posture and continued, louder, careful to not miss a word:
“Behold, this primeval enemy and slayer of men has taken courage. Transformed into an angel of light, he wanders about with all the multitude of wicked spirits, invading the earth in order to blot out the name of God and of his Christ, to seize upon, slay and cast into eternal perdition souls destined for the crown of eternal glory. This wicked dragon pours out, as a most impure flood, the venom of his malice on men of depraved mind and corrupt heart, the spirit of lying, of impiety, of blasphemy, and the pestilent breath of impurity, and of every vice and iniquity.”
Up in the sky, the dim haemorrhage of something brilliant and red began to colour the grey veil of cloud, lit its folds from above and gave it the shape a great rose. Asa followed it with his eyes as it narrowed and grew stronger, watched it between his reading, but did not stop. A great gust droned through the woods and bowed the sleeping trees, swirled the snow and fog in a panic and the lights in the girl’s room, in the house and every other for as far as he could see faltered and went out, died in the new night of perfect, unholy quiet. The light above the clouds was contracting slowly and focussing to a brilliant red point, the broad nimbus of its effulgence rippling outward in a shimmering circle. Asa drove through an impending sense of doom, a prodigious and crushing weight of energy that he had never felt before. He steadied himself and forced his voice louder.
“These most crafty enemies have filled and inebriated with gall and bitterness the Church, the spouse of the immaculate Lamb, and have laid impious hands on her most sacred possessions. In the holy place itself, where had been set up the see of the most holy Peter and the chair of truth for the light of the world, they have raised the throne of their abominable impiety, with the iniquitous design that when the pastor has been struck, the sheep may be scattered.”
The thing broke through, flashed hotly once and dimmed—a red star falling slowly, with the conscious, measured manner of a creature feeling blindly through a dark, unfamiliar passage, and approached the roof of the house. Asa took a swift, deep breath and summoned the waning spirit of his will, forced his eyes to lock onto, to see and arrest and believe the dim fact of the girl’s face lost somewhere in the darkness of the prism’s image.
“Arise then, O invincible prince! Bring help against the attacks of the lost spirits to the people of God, and give them victory! They venerate thee as their protector and patron; in thee the holy Church glories as her defence against the malicious power of hell! To thee has God entrusted the souls of men to be established in heavenly beatitude! Oh pray to the God of peace that He may put Satan under our feet, so far conquered that he may no longer be able to hold men in captivity and harm the Church!”
The light passed through the roof of the house, winked through the attic window and reappeared in the girl’s room. It descended slowly from the ceiling and briefly lit what looked like a host of featureless, agitated human figures standing around the girl, then disappeared.
Asa stopped reading. The menacing, dreadful weight of danger sat now as a nauseous, distended ball of lead in his stomach. Sweat had soaked through his undershirt; he wiped it from his brow with the back of a wrist. The soft creaking of the trees, the wash of a gentle, distant wind. Asa scanned, waited for the frail, fatigued blue light of the mottled sky to call the contours of the earth back from darkness.
Far in the cornfield the red light materialised and began moving low over the earth. Asa hurriedly brought the book before him, passed quickly down the page to find his spot:
“Offer our prayers in the sight of the Most High! So that they may quickly conciliate the mercies of the Lord; and beating down the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, do thou again make him captive in the abyss, that he may no longer seduce the nations! Amen!” He snapped the book shut and thrust it out before him, closing his eyes as the red orb approached.
“Behold the Cross of the Lord! Be scattered ye hostile powers! The Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered, the root of David! Let thy mercies be upon us, O Lord, as we have hoped in thee! O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come unto thee!” The orb was suspended several feet before the house, it incarnadined the snow around it, the trees of the yard, flooded everything a bright, blood red. Asa’s legs were trembling and he felt faint, like he was going to collapse or be sick. He shut his eyes again, imagined a towering, white cross standing before the house, cutting a deep shadow across it, covering it, hiding him in its dreadful, mute power.
After several moments he opened his eyes.
The thing was gone.
He spun around.
“Asa,” his sister said in her tired, high squeak, and she rubbed her eye with a knuckle. Asa put the book on the sill and dropped to a knee. The girl hurried to be taken into his arms. With her body against his, and her soft, faintly weepy breath in his ear he was renewed with a swell of fierce, protective power. He felt her hair as he lifted her and she swung her little feet around him.
“What were you saying?”
“I didn’t mean to shout,” he whispered, petting her hair. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
“You were saying weird things, I heard it, it was like ‘ablablablabala,’ but really quiet,” she said softly, rearing back a little to find his face.
“Oh. I must have been praying.”
“A new one, I guess.”
“He’s still out in the woods.”
“Where in the woods?”
Asa turned to the window. The north. The woods were sleeping again. He approached the window slowly, carefully.
“There,” he pointed. “Out there is Daddy.”
“Did you see him in the camera?”
“How do you know he’s there?”
“I just do.”
“Is Daddy happy?”
Asa didn’t answer immediately. He thought about it.
“Yes. Yes Daddy is happy.”
“Is he smiling?”
“Yes, he’s smiling.”
“Because…because we’re going away. Because it’s over.” He looked out over the woods, and at the reflection of the house now with its lights on, behind him—small, diminishingly small now and distant. “It’s over.”
The lions stood in wait outside Ricco’s apartment building. They were always waiting. And the first floor even in winter was stuffy with the smell of carpet. It reminded her of church, the carpet. The wood veneer in the elevator. Ephyra usually waited, but today she ran, up the stairs, and in her flats and on the cold concrete her steps clapped out sharply and filled the stairwell with their noise, announcing her visit. She paused on the final landing. Faintly beyond her blocked nose she smelt burning. She rushed, gained the steps three at a time, pulling herself up by the steel banister. Ricco’s apartment was the first one on the sixth floor; Ephyra didn’t wait to catch her breath before pounding on the door. She unwrapped her scarf and shook the raindrops from her umbrella before collapsing and sheathing it in its small black pouch. She paced the hallway, trying to place the smell.
“Ricco!” she shouted, and pounded on the door again.
When Ricco answered he was wearing a suit. The jacket was too big for him; he had rolled the sleeves up and the cheap acrylic lining showed, a bright green tartan. He had a cigarette behind his ear. He said nothing as he stood there, leaning with a hand against the jamb.
“Are you going to let me in?” Ephyra said.
“I don’t know,” said Ricco, and with slow, thoughtful movements took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit it. “I have to go soon.”
“I only came by to say something,” said Ephyra.
“Uh-huh,” said Ricco. After a few moments he pressed back against the door and let her in, turning his chin up to raise his cigarette. Ephyra lay her scarf against a chair back. Her nose was running, her face flushed pink and tingling now in the stillness, away from the bracing wind.
“I came to say…” she began. She sniffed back the cold and passed a finger once or twice beneath each nostril with a tissue from her pocket. “I came to say…”
The kitchen was a disaster zone. Pots, pans, a grey sauce spilled over, crusted black over the stovetop elements, paper towels soaked with…something. Resting on the oven door atop a bundle of dishtowels was a swollen, cracked black brick in a casserole dish.
“The fuck is this?”
“Casserole,” said Ricco, leaning against the jamb.
“I know,” said Ricco, “save it.” He went to the table by the window and picked up where he had left off with his Nintendo, leaning back in his chair and letting his cigarette hang from his mouth.
“Don’t you have to go soon?”
“You have something to say, so say it.”
Ephyra went to take off her peacoat, but decided against it. She sat down across from Ricco, before the large, open window. The air was brisk against the nape of her neck. She turned up her collar, took a cigarette from the pack on the table and put it in her breast pocket.
“You look good,” she said.
“I look like trash,” said Ricco, emphasising the word with his characteristic trill, pulling the cigarette from his mouth at the last second. He ashed, then switched off the game, setting it in the bookshelf beside him without looking.
“You came to say you’re sorry,” he said.
“No, I came to say good luck.”
Ricco rolled his cigarette between his fingers. She looked away.
“You came to say sorry but you decided it was beneath you when you saw me in this…this stupid thing.” Ricco rested his cigarette against a saucer and got up. He went to the bathroom and ran the water and Ephyra watched the cigarette burn through its footing on the saucer and fall to the table. When Ricco returned his hair was wet and slicked back with a comb. Behind him pale drops hung from the black hooks of his hair and fell onto his suit jacket. The drops stuck there, stuck to the nap of the fabric and didn’t move. When he sat he wrung the twisted underside of his collar into his ear. He left the ridiculous jacket on. Probably because it was cold, though he wore it now with a certain spirit of defiance. Ephyra watched as he wet his thumb and rubbed indifferently at the small black spot on the table where the head of the cigarette had been.
“Yes,” said Ephyra. “I came to say sorry. Give me credit for that. I’m sorry.”
“Congratulation would be more appropriate.”
“Congratulations. Well done.”
Ephyra stood. Bracing her legs she planted her elbows in her sides and forced the window up another inch or so. She reached her body out into the cold, her face aimed out into the noise of the city, and tiny pricks of something sharp and dry dotted her nose and eyelids and lips. It was snow. She inhaled, held the burning air then sighed and returned to the apartment.
“I should have told you,” she said. “I was duplicitous. I wanted two things at once, and I acted selfishly. I blamed you, and made you think that you’d done something wrong, when you hadn’t, you were completely in the right.”
“And now you’re back for one last ride.”
“You came here to be seduced. You want me to screw you, but you don’t want to take responsibility for that.”
“No. I came here to say sorry.”
“That’s what you tell yourself. If it didn’t go right, or if you started to bear down on yourself. That’s what you would say. ‘I came there to say sorry.’”
“No. I don’t want sex. I want—”
“What do you want Ephyra?”
“I want things to be okay.”
“Okay,” said Ricco with a shrug. He stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. “Okay, things are okay. Now what would you like to talk about.”
He was looking at it. It was glinting, even in the low light. Ephyra put her hands on her lap beneath the table, though she wanted to cross her arms. She felt defenceless and frail.
“Let’s talk about your art. Let’s talk about all the wonderful attention you’re getting—”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, friend, I’m not the one who needs cheering up.”
“You think I’m upset?”
“I can tell you’re upset.”
“Why should I be upset? I have nothing to be upset about.”
“I would be upset if I had to marry someone I had no interest in.”
“You’ve misunderstood my situation. I don’t have to marry anyone.”
“You do if you want to stay here. You do if you want to be the big shot writer in New York and not go home to your crazy mother.”
“My home is on thirty-third. And don’t you dare insult my mother.”
Ricco stood. He whisked off the jacket and threw it on the couch then unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. In the kitchen he scraped the burnt casserole out into the garbage and began cleaning.
Ephyra went to the coffee table, unwound a length of tissue from the roll sitting there and blew her nose. “I thought you had to go soon,” she called between snorts.
“No one will miss me,” he said. “You’re welcome to get the fuck out of here whenever you like though.”
Ephyra turned on the television. Then she stood before the calendar hanging beside it on the wall. With the red marker blu-tacked beside the calender she crossed off the remaining days of November, one after the other, then turned the page and repinned the calender to the wall. It was the ruin of the temple of Venus and Roma at night. The apse of Venus was prominent, the high coffered ceiling lit yellow. It was, she remembered from seeing the ceremony of the Via Crucis in Rome as a child, the place before which the Pope would stand, then sit and meditate on the stations. She thought he was sleeping, there in his scarlet tent, nestled between the legs of Venus.
On the television now they were reporting on the legions of beached whales. Ephyra changed the channel.
“I feel like I’ve travelled a million miles. I don’t know where I belong,” she said after she had sat down. She was surprised when Ricco responded. She didn’t think he could hear her; not over the running water, the television. Her stuffy nose.
“I know the feeling,” he said. Ephyra lay on her side. Something was complete. Something was beginning. She tried to find a channel that wasn’t about the cetacean holocaust. About the panic and the speculation and the ignorance, and the pointing of fingers. She held one of the cushions to her chest and drew her legs in.
Ricco was fussing over something in the kitchen.
“You fuck,” he was saying, over and over. “You fuck, you fuck, you fuck.” She knew he was trying to open the drawer for the dishtowels, but the fibreboard of the counter had soaked and dried so many times it was swollen. It was a simple procedure to open it, but Ricco refused to comply with the new rule. Something snapped, the drawer opened.
“I thought I had to go soon,” said Ricco as he entered, drying his hands.
“No one will miss you,” said Ephyra.
He threw the dishtowel then sat down beside her, put her head on his lap and played with her hair as he watched the television.
“Leave it on this,” he said, “I like this.”
“This is a commercial,” said Ephyra. Ricco was miming the words. He knew it by heart.
The lead-in. The plot. The punch line. The product. The tagline.
It ended. He sighed. A bored sigh, a distracted sigh.
“Here,” said Ephyra, and handed the remote up to Ricco. She blew her nose again then reached and placed the tissues in an empty mug on the table. Drawing back her empty hand she placed her fingers curled before her mouth and enjoyed the warm passage of air from her nostrils, because it was the small and distinct sensation of a battle newly won over her body.
“All the world is shit,” she said indistinctly, then clearing her throat she told Ricco to turn the television off, because she supposed that that was what she was referring to, after all.
“You are shit,” Ricco said, and muted it.
They listened to the quietness for a while, the sounds of the building and of the streets outside. Ricco arched over and hovered above her face for a kiss. Ephyra tensed her lips and brushed him away.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” he said quietly after a while. “Ephyra?”
“You’re sorry what? Articulate yourself.”
“I’m sorry about what I said. She’s not crazy.”
“No, she is crazy, but you’re not allowed to say that.”
Ricco was quiet. He used the dumb show of the commercial’s pictures to fill the reflective emptiness. He pretended he was still in the comfort of the indefinite space they had each felt vacate as soon as he had leaned in for a kiss. Ephyra was trusting in the indubitable effect of time to pass over the thing like a strickle, making even the jagged edges, the plumes and protuberances. Things would be comfortable again if she left it alone. Ricco was going to say something. She could hear his mouth open then close.
“Just say it,” she said.
“I wish I could have met your mother.”
“That doesn’t help.”
“No, but I mean it. I would like to have met her.”
Ephyra wasn’t sure whether the preterite was an acknowledgement of the end of their relationship, or of her mother’s failing health, or something else. Either way it was acutely discomfiting. She didn’t know exactly where she was in that moment, who exactly she was being fondled by, what exactly the guidelines were. But Ricco continued:
“When I was a kid I wanted to meet my guardian angel. I wanted to see if he was like me at all. I always thought that was the highest art, reaching the other side.”
“And do you think you’ve done that?”
“I think I’m pressing on the firmament. Like a lot of good artists. I don’t know if it’s possible to reach through entirely. I remember when my aunty died, I was twelve. And after her funeral, I was at home, and I was meant to be sleeping but I was beside my bed praying. I was just praying and praying, and in my head it was my aunty’s dead face in her coffin, with her grey skin and she had like—I don’t know if you’ve been to a wake but her eyes were all flat, it doesn’t look normal. And I felt so bad, I wanted to know if she was okay, so I prayed and prayed, and I asked the Archangel Michael to show me Aunty Marina, just to show me her so I knew she was okay, but I didn’t know where she was. And that night, when I was sleeping, I saw her. I knew it was her, I got the exact same feeling as though she were there, and we were talking together. I don’t know what she was saying, but we were talking, and she was happy, she was wearing a red dress, and it was beautiful. Not like any other dress, I don’t know what it was made of—it was like a kind of shimmery, opaque cloud.”
“I saw my aunty once too,” said Ephyra.
“Really? I didn’t know you had an aunty.”
“On my mother’s side. I’ve never met her.”
“And you saw her in a dream?”
“Yes. We were in a garden. We were sitting on a bench and it was really bright. That’s all I remember, it was a long time ago. It makes no difference,” said Ephyra.
“Why? Why doesn’t it make a difference, I think it does,” said Ricco. He would throw back a comment like that the way someone would kick out their feet as they fell backwards. Ephyra didn’t care anymore. She felt as though she were preparing to tear away a delicate and expensive-looking Christmas wrapper after a long time trying to determine how it was wrapped, and how best to preserve it. It was all ending now; it thrilled her and scared her.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” she said, “because your Holy Guardian Angel can’t save you. He can’t intercede for you. The saints can’t intercede for you. Your ancestors. We are alone. There is nothing that can help us.”
“That’s blasphemy,” said Ricco.
“It’s blasphemy to think that we could do anything to save ourselves. It’s blasphemy to think that we can come to a closer understanding of God and the mechanism of our salvation by prying it from other created beings.”
“You’re ignorant, I was never talking about salvation.”
“But that’s what it boils down to. It’s what all your talk about God or anyone else’s has ever boiled down to. Everlasting life in paradise.”
Ricco got up. Ephyra sat cross-legged on the couch and by the window Ricco struck a match and lit another cigarette.
“This,” he said, holding up his hands, turning them over, half-facing her, half-facing the window. “These are the tools of my moksha, my salvation. My art is my redemption. I draw wisdom down from the world of pure form. I never said I needed anybody to step in for me. You are the one with the inferiority complex. You are the one who is scared of your mother’s “New York is Babylon” bullshit. You need help, Ephyra. I have God, at least; I have guidance from something higher than fear and jealousy. You have nothing.”
He turned back to the window and Ephyra could see him trembling. This was the farthest she had ever got on the subject with Ricco. With anybody. She had breached something she didn’t consider herself capable of, and she was filled with an excitement of discovery, and also of something destructive—she felt as though she had been betrayed, spat on, and in the process relieved of any remaining obligation to sensitivity.
“I may not have had the training and attention my sister was afforded as a child,” she said, calmly and sharply, sitting perfectly still, “but I learned to hold a planchette as early as you learned to hold a paintbrush, I’ve listened to the chatter that fills the ‘other side’ as you call it. I’m at least as qualified to talk about the state of things in the world of pure forms as you are. It was a lesson hard learned but there is nothing I’m so sure of as this: that confusion reigns for them as surely as it does for us. People get by with delusions, Ricco, it’s how we escape the vastness of our ignorance. There are as many ambiguities and unknowns separating us from the truth as there are for them. It’s only that for them, truth-making is a tortuous and sleepless process of having one thing refer to another in a limitless regression so that one idea can assume the essence of its opposite as well as it can its closest cousin, and the initial pursuit of truth becomes unrealisable. It’s the greatest delusion of all. That’s art isn’t it? One mirror calling out to another? Your aunty was wearing a cloudy red dress because she imagined she was. There will be a time when every delusion that has ever served to keep a person living or dead seperate from the fact of their forsakenness will be swept away in a great fire, and we will understand our destitution, and we will be given to it, in saecula saeculorum.”
Ephyra quickly felt the usual authority of conjuring and ordering words to fit the empty spaces of her thoughts give way to something else. As she watched the television tears formed in her eyes—it was at once the pleasure of relenting to the unestablished, unspoiled procession of a flame escaping the guttering, timid way it was used to, and the fear of seeing the fire spread. She felt profoundly wise and foolish, poetic and sophomoric.
“Your God,” she continued, “is an idea amongst the others swirling hopelessly unbound around the wall of a whirlpool. God in reality is the absence of thought, the centre of the vortex. It is complete and unconscious acuity. Thought beyond death, beyond death. Real God is nothing. He is your ‘what is not’. With every thought, with every attempt at apprehending him or the clockwork of his creation we are separating ourselves from salvation. You are one artist among many shitting into the pool of turgid human waste we are blinded by. You think you are opening people’s eyes, but you’re shitting down their throats. The greatest contribution you could make to moksha is shutting your fucking mouth forever.”
An explosion somewhere outside.
Ephyra, filled with the ineffable mystery of silence which her own strange speech had convinced her of, was suddenly overwhelmed with a fear of separation, a fear of hideous and invisible retribution. Ricco had not moved. He was leaning at the windowsill with his head out, looking down at the street, the cigarette between his fingers burnt nearly to its end.
“What…what was it?” she asked after a moment.
He didn’t answer. He pulled back, drew the last breath from his cigarette and put it out. He walked to the television and turned it off, and Ephyra watched as he went expressionlessly past, into the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind him.
A few streets away people were gathering loosely around and filtering through the scene of a car collision. Ephyra could hear the wailing of sirens far off. The least damaged of the two cars was empty—as she neared she saw what must have been the driver, holding his forehead in pain or shock, with a small crowd of the others around the wreckage of a family sedan.
A child in the back was crying. The front end of the car rose in a mangled heap, the white bonnet was like a twisted spill of paper arching out above the engine bay, obscuring the windshield. The heavy smell of petrol. As Ephyra passed along the sidewalk she saw inside. She saw the people on the other side looking in. And she kept moving.
As she walked she wondered at the intricate thing she had seen inside. The coils and shards, and tubes.
The sidewalk was already filling up with the Friday crowd. Later on it would be spilling over. Past the cathedral were the clubs, and the broad alleys that now as on every other weekend reeked of piss. Down there a girl crouched with her underwear pulled down, taut between her knees, and her friend waited by on her phone. The queues for the bars loaded certain streets with life and warmth, with smoke, with an ever-renewing turbulence of noise; twittering, bubbling, the low, lusty crashing of the other voices, laughter striking out without restraint. Some called to her, many men gave pained or half-shy looks of want. Fully clothed, she stood out among the millions tottering in their heels, breasts bared, faces made, men and women both. Frocked, glittered, bleached, blown out, unredacted, incomplete, all melting in their colour, Ephyra thought, all stuttering together, sense forebears to speak.
Ephyra saw her bus stop, saw the bus and the people filtering into it, but didn’t run, had decided to walk home.
The streets away from the city were rust red; the oaks, the ashes not yet entirely bare. Ephyra stepped from the sidewalk into the gutter, swished through the tawny envelope of leaf, measured the long journey by the light of the street lamps. She always arranged her walks based on the prettiest streets; the lushest or largest trees, the most beautiful and oldest homes, and she would often stop at the beginning of a street and wonder whether to take her turn there or save it for another. She was used to them all now though; the newness had long begun to wash away. Still she didn’t know the names—her attempts at spontaneity, at variety ended with her taking the same paths, in the same sequence somehow. She didn’t keep track of things. Her mind always was full. Full, full, full. It was no use disciplining it—it floated where it wanted, spoke things, murmured the day’s events, the things that she had said and also the things that she hadn’t said, and what he had said, what he should have said, what she wanted to say. All words that ran the mill round like water, hissed and resurfaced and went their way round again.
Tonight she had been edging the margins of a guilt she wasn’t ready to lay claim to. Ricco was sensitive. His art was stunning, but not really breathtaking or groundbreaking the way worthwhile art was, the way the industry demanded. He had had some success outside of university but not much. She liked to prod him the way she did Tom because she felt it made him reach outside of his self-pitying mindset. She had never told him God was nothing, though. She had never said that what he was doing, what he was working so hard to achieve was shit, and in a way she didn’t feel responsible. She had intended to say something much different—she was talking about the elusiveness of art, not its futility; that at least had been in her head. She didn’t know what God was, and she didn’t exactly know what moksha was either. She wasn’t exactly scared of her mother’s oracles; he had been bluffing about that the way she had with the God stuff. The fear wasn’t so specific. She was afraid of living in the same world as her mother. She was afraid of belonging to that house—depending on the same scaffolding that had come to give her life the sense it did—divinity, necessity, supremacy. The sight and thought of her mother’s sickness, in the humanising light of post-adolescence somehow queered the romance of her own life, the mystery of decision making that had brought her here—here at the head end of futurity. The two things were entwined. They were witnesses of each other.
New York had been the one place her mother had forbidden her to go to—in fact the only stated proscription she could remember from her mother, something solemn and irrevocable. It was before her first major stroke. She had told Wallace to bring her into her bedroom, and she had sat by her bed and shared a cigarette with her. Her mother had been having another bout of migraines—the room was entirely dark except for the light of the alarm clock on her bedside table.
“Fallen is Babylon,” she had whispered, her eyes shut against the pain, or perhaps the returning impression of the vision.
“(Mother, holy mother.) Babylon is fallen.”
She remembered the shadows around her mother’s lips. Her bright youth witched old in the dark. It did that—Ephyra never noticed it happen, though it had done it.
Ricco knew more about fear than she did; that was what she should have said. It was the only way he sensed it in other people. He had the fear of being alone. Ricco would leave Ephyra long text messages after arguments. He would tell her that he loved her, that he was in agony when she was gone, that he grieved over his mistakes, that he wished she would forgive him; and all the time she would be busy with work, busy with Tom, and the messages had just built up, more and more drastic. It scared her, though she kept going back, and he would be grumpy and reticent like normal, like a magic trick the whole thing had gone away. She considered that he might commit suicide now that it was all said and done, or maybe he would find out where she lived. She regretted that he knew the street. Maybe she would get bunches of flowers at work. Or maybe he was more a grown man than she gave him credit for, and it would all be over like that. Every time she received a phone call from a new number she experienced the dread of hearing his voice—he cycled through burners with an app he used, she had discovered, to trick her into picking up and hearing his apologies. More than anything he was violent. He maintained the fantasy that his art excused him, excused his rants, his punching of walls, his profanities, though he never said so. As an artist he was more full of the crude, catalysing entrain of life that others lacked. That she lacked.
Ephyra quickened her pace. Along the street squirrels flitted, paused, and looked sideward from their positions on tree branches, along the footpath, scuttled around trunks to seperate themselves from her, as though her appearance there along that street, on that hour, were rare, or premature.
“I have been here,” she said, “for a long, long time, mes chers.”
It had begun to rain. The soundless drizzle was stuttering now, rustling the layers of dead leaves. Fog brought back the noise as something from which the hard outer shell had been removed. It was all around. Ephyra folded out her umbrella.
“I am…” she said, moving along, looking at the houses. “I don’t know where I am.”
She wondered how long she had been simply drifting without direction.
She headed tentatively to the end of the street and stepped out onto the junction.
“The bus stop,” she said, pointing vaguely for nobody’s benefit to the bench beneath the red maple. The slow shroud of fog obscured the strewn red leaves and gave them the ceremonial look of a bed of embers. She crossed the road, then turned, tried to make east from west. She continued along the road then was stopped short by the realisation that she had, for only an instant, seen her face somewhere. Ephyra turned back, confused, and searched the handbills, the lost-and-founds on the power pole. She searched the windows of a shopfront, one by one working backward, and came to a blown-up painted image of her face on a glossy poster. She went to touch it and jarred her finger on the glass. It was Ricco’s work—she recognised the style almost immediately. Printed were the details of the reception. The name of the exhibition. The blinds were down. She went to the door and knocked furtively on the glass, then checked her phone for the time. She had several missed calls from the same number. Ephyra felt the precipitous dead space of shock at once sweep and replace what was left of the tedium of the long walk. She knew that something had happened.
The gallery inside was a pure white. The immediate room had perhaps five attendees; well dressed, trendily dressed, floating around with flutes of champagne or dark bottles of beer. Ephyra immediately aligned herself with the muted, intellectual air of the room, dulled her stunned expression, casually shook out her umbrella on the mat and put it in the canister with the others beside the door. She took off her coat and folded it against her arm, but held it closely to her as she walked the room, avoiding people’s eyes. A turn. A hallway to the bathrooms. The darkening passage to another room, the white walls insulated with even black slabs of shiny foam. The changing light of a floor-to-ceiling screen on the faces of a sparse audience sitting, cuddling, slouching by the walls. They were watching the arhythmic projections of geometric forms; some three-dimensional and moving, some static, some falling away, smaller and smaller, collapsing, or blooming outward, and the shapes were paired with, compared to images of acute suffering—Mizocz, Nanjing, Dachau. Somewhere, something at that moment, Ephyra felt, was making sense of the expressions, the physical attitudes of dread or fatigue or cold or wonder in the photographs, assessing them in their respective contexts and expressing in the shapes the whole thing with a direct, mathematical accuracy that was uncanny. She left quietly, followed the hall to another room. Paintings. Portraits in conté, charcoal, coffee. Crossing to the centre of the room, she looked down briefly at a table with a rectangular enclosure of clay mounds like ant hills, and among them, bumbling, dragging or walking periodically and desultorily, little clay creatures—little robots.
She continued into a hallway. Narrow, bright. The sound of a recording—a man’s voice; calm, educated and authoritative. She began to make out the words. “Assuming article, deals with attention in frugal attitudes all from subtle appraisal of the indentured made summons to federal Wight instead, cylindrical, he said, found immeasurably nearer transverse spectacle in Albright than wishing his own strakes made willingly…” It was nonsense. She tried to shut it out as she moved closer to the next room. She held her coat more tightly to her, and attempted to bring something solid and opaque to the front of her mind, an authority of her own that would defend against the increasingly overbearing noise. When she entered, the voice stopped. The room was small and square. A young woman sat cross-legged, slumped forward into the corner. Shallow breathing. Ephyra searched the walls for a label, a title. Moved a little closer.
“Are you real?” she asked fearfully. Her jaw ached. Her ears and cheeks were hot, flushed red; her head cold seemed worse in the still air and silence. “I’m looking”—she continued, urging herself beyond the confronting experience of doubt, of fear that she was alone in the room, of fear that she wasn’t—“I’m looking for my friend’s artwork, Ricco. I don’t know if I’m going the right way.”
There was a pause, then the cross-legged figure indicated with a movement of its head so slight it could have been Ephyra’s imagination the narrow doorway. Ephyra continued on, watching the figure warily as she exited in silence. There was darkness at the end of the hall. A dark room. Behind her the voice took up where it had left off.
She made her way slowly down the hall, hugging her coat, sticking close to the wall. At the end she paused.
“Hello?” she called, stepping into the lightless room. Her voice had an echo; the room was large. She backed slowly into the hall, looked down to where the light was, the voice. She didn’t want to go back. She reentered the large dark room and felt the wall to the left of her for a light switch. The wall on the right. She shuffled slowly out, holding a hand out before her. A light clicked on. In the centre of the large, bare stockroom, a cubicle. Ephyra moved slowly toward it. As she rounded the entrance she saw illuminated a large painting, six feet tall mounted on the cubicle wall. She entered.
It was her likeness. The woman’s toes dug at the wet sand of a bare grey beach. She stood hunched, holding her arms up before her breasts, the hands folded loosely beside a face with an expression of quiet, newly-awoken bewilderment. The eyes were dark, dilated, hazy and swollen, the hair stuck flat to her shoulders and neck, slick, still dripping. The ocean behind the woman was flat, went on into muted greyness the way her gaze did, so that the desolation spread inward and outward with the same resolution. The woman’s pale skin was marbled; the cold, sweeping from the ocean, surrounding the woman and penetrating her was tangible—there was an inarticulate, animal desperation in her posture and in her unyielding expression that scared Ephyra. Her arms, she saw now, cradled something that wasn’t there, something that had been lost perhaps in the ocean.
“Blasphemy,” Ephyra said once, quietly, unsure of her own conviction but feeling the assessment was due in a way that was beyond her.
The heavy back exit led to a little courtyard. Ephyra squinted at the slanting rain, pulled on her coat and walked home.
In the bathroom mirror, as she ran the tub, Ephyra recreated the posture of the grey woman on the beach. Then she turned to her side, lifted her arm, felt at the twin moles that had made it into the painting. She was pale and mottled like the woman. She was not alone, though.
“I am not alone,” she said. “I am not forsaken. I am more comfortable than I have been in my entire life.”
In the bath, her nose, her mouth submerged, she closed her eyes, wept on the water quietly. She breached, then lowered herself completely in, listened as the silence entered, ticked, distended the small noises, the high, anticipatory thrumming of those muscles somewhere in her holding on. Tom had come home. She emerged, listened. She could tell by the way he put his keys in the bowl, by the way he opened the refrigerator that he was still angry.
“Tom,” she called. Footsteps.
“Where are you?” came the voice.
“In the bathroom.”
Cautious steps moved toward the door, stopped. He knocked.
She didn’t answer. After a few moments he peaked his head in.
“Come in here,” said Ephyra. “Close the door.” He did. The steam swirled then slowed. She searched his reflection through the fog and glass. He stood there in his shirtsleeves holding one of his bottles of peach nectar. He was tall, dark and slender, with a broad face, a broad smile when he smiled, and short, messy brown hair. His shirt was still tucked in, sleeves down, his tie not yet unfastened. He wore a strong, worried look, stood there with one hand on the doorknob as though he could stand there all night, waiting for her to tell him what was the matter.
“Sit here. Please,” she said. He crossed into view, neared the bath without looking at her, then sat, slowly, carefully, committed to some martyrdom he had seen and planned in his head. He was looking down at the engagement ring resting on the ledge of the bath beside her.
“Give me your hand,” she said.
With the same slow, determined attitude he unbuttoned then began to fold up his left sleeve. Ephyra took the hand. Cool. Cool and large, she took it by the fingers and held it to her cheek, her temple.
“You’re hot,” he said quietly and felt her forehead. “You shouldn’t have gone to work today.”
“How was work?”
“Fine,” she said.
“Get up to much else? See anything funny on the way home?”
“Many strange things,” she said.
“I didn’t bring back dinner.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
“What…what would you like to do tonight?” he faltered.
“Tonight we’ll make love,” she said. “Then, we’ll share a cigarette.”
“I’m down with that,” he said.
“Good,” she laughed, and took the hand that had been resting beside her face, kissed it, and lay her face against it.
She had collapsed last night. All at once the accrual of Pearl’s sleeplessness had come upon her as she perched for just a moment before her dresser, and when she came to it was around nine-thirty, and she was on the carpet. She had practically crawled into bed that night and wept quietly to think that were her father there he would have rushed in immediately and done something special like check her eyes and smooth back her hair and read a chapter from The Chronicles of Narnia as she lay in bed and pretended not to be sleepy enough for sleep.
Pearl changed into her black dress and wandered her room with the residual intention of some forgotten task. She stared out the window. Snow for days. In her wardrobe, from a packing box she pulled out her Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour video tape, a Christmas present from a co-worker of her father’s, Paul, whom she had apparently met one time at a company Christmas function. She had entertained him with a rendition of “Love Explosion” before her father caught wind of it from inside and rushed out to cut her off at the crucial moment. Ironically it had been the only gift she could really remember that was exactly appropriate—most gifts were from family, and seemed to be making a decision for her in one way or another; remembering, electing in advance the image of a young, chaste catholic with not many friends and a once-passing interest in beading and drawing. To buy her something as obvious as a tour video from a singer she actually liked would be to admit defeat. She had been grateful and secretly floored that someone she didn’t remember would remember her; would ‘get it’, and expect no thanks in return.
In the living-room downstairs she fast forwarded the tape, took a few steps back from the television with the remote and prepared to dance. It wasn’t her favourite track, that was “Into the Groove”, the lyrics of which she could follow almost flawlessly, but “Lucky Star” was the best for dancing, and since it appeared that she had the house to herself, it seemed like a perfect opportunity. She pressed play, flung the remote to the couch and unzipped her jacket. After a moment of tense muteness the sparkling, glissando synth notes began, the hiss of the cabasa, the playful, buoyant chords of the bass, the guitar, and the glowing flounce of Madonna’s hair in the amber light, like fire, back forth, thrash, thrash. Pearl imitated it, rolling her hips, bobbing to the rhythm. A kind of star-jump and a smooth series of aerobic leg movements she had never been able to follow. She covered it over with a simple breakdance flourish she had learned from another performance which still got her to a kneel, a fist to her cheek in a pose of intense, seductive contemplation. A slow roll upward, bottom out, and the singing began.
“You must be my lucky star,” she mimed, faint exhalations of words as she strutted toward the TV, down the steps of the stage, and beside her on either side she was joined by her male dancers, the screams, the ecstatic wailing and sheer unhinged emotionality of a hoard of worshippers, groping at the light from the blackness of the pit, pushing to smell, to touch, to feel her skin and her clothes and her hair, to contact her physically and to take part in her.
The chorus. Slow pointing, then twists, spins, a hand that feels, top to bottom, the shape of the body from the breast to between the legs the way a lover would in the dim secrecy of a bedroom. A leap and a high kick, turn. Veda standing at the entrance.
“Wow,” she said, lighting a cigarette.
“How long were you standing there?” Pearl said.
Pearl fumbled with the remote, trying to control her panting while her back was turned.
“What’s there for lunch?”
“Nothing,” said Veda. “You can have a cigarette if you want, you’ve earned it.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Veda,” Pearl said. Her back was still turned to her sister. She could feel herself trembling. She didn’t know why she felt so sad, and so lonely so suddenly.
“Veda I…I went in your room. I’m sorry.” She shuddered as she cried, and covered her face with a hand.
Veda blew smoke and laughed at the same time. “Hence the joke,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“I know. Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh,” Pearl said. She wiped her eyes. “Thank you.”
She turned and when she looked into Veda’s eyes, Veda looked away, embarrassed, or perhaps scared by her tears.
“You had fun with Draco?”
“Saturday. I saw you out there.”
“You were having fun. It’s okay, I’m not going to tell. You’re allowed to play with boys on my watch. He’s zany, right?”
“Yes. He’s really smart.” Pearl thought back and tried to remember any one of the names he had taught her, the stars, and the stuff about the future, but it was too much pressure and she gave up.
“Don’t look too much into it,” Veda said, the cigarette hanging from her lips. She was running her fingers through the thick, black mass of her hair beside her on her shoulder, working out small knots between her painted fingernails, which were strong and well-shaped and just the right size, which Pearl envied.
“What do you want to do today?” said Veda.
“What do you mean?”
“We can do anything you like.”
“Don’t worry about her, she’s away with Finn,” she said, ashing in the potted plant.
“Mark should be back tomorrow.”
“I hope he is.”
“You’ve never spent a Christmas Eve alone before?”
“I feel flat,” Pearl said, and whumped down into the couch.
“That’s best,” said Veda, and plunged the end of her cigarette into the soil. “Have you ever been in the attic?”
“Once. And once in a dream.”
“What was up there?”
“In the dream?”
“Normal stuff,” Pearl lied.
“You wanna check it out?” Veda said, and smirked.
“Okay,” said Veda when she had finished dealing the cards. She put the remaining deck down between them on the floor. “Now.” She took the card from the top and placed it face-up beside the deck.
“Your basic aim is to get rid of all your cards. An ace is at the bottom,” she explained as Pearl sorted through her cards, arranging them. “You want three of a kind, like three eights or three threes or whatever, but you can also have runs like two, three, four if they’re all the same suit. When you put down, you gotta pick up as well, from the pile. The rest you’ll figure out as we go along. Don’t look so nervous,” she added, smiling.
“Okay,” Pearl said, shifting slightly on her cushion. Veda lay a card down to overlay the other and picked up from the pile. “Your turn.”
Pearl did the same. As they played she drifted in and out of the music from the record player. It was something exotic, Indian that she had heard coming from Veda’s room numerous times before. But in the dry, empty quiet of the attic it was deep and reverberant and beautiful. Pearl felt wonderful.
“Are you okay?” Veda laughed after a while.
“Yeah,” said Pearl, and she leaned slowly backward to lie on the floor, and looked up at the ceiling. “I like this music,” she said. “Do you know what it’s about?”
“Yes, it’s about life, and about the end of life.”
“What is he saying?”
Veda was quiet. After a moment she recited:
“O my stranger soul, why do you fall into entanglements? The true Lord abides within your mind; why are you trapped by the noose of death? The fish leaves the water with tearful eyes, when the fisherman casts his net. The love of Maya is sweet to the world, but in the end, this delusion is dispelled. So perform devotional worship, link your consciousness to the Lord, and dispel anxiety from your mind.”
The song ended and the record slipped and whispered quietly in its groove, on and on, and the soft sound of it filled the attic. Pearl listened to it, and to her breathing as she watched the snow falling gently outside.
“In my dream I was talking to a man,” she said.
“No, a couple of nights ago. The one in the attic. He was over there,” Pearl pointed languidly at the wall of furniture and bric-a-brac. She looked at it past her nose. “There was nothing in here though. It was bare. And he was sitting in a chair, and I was talking with him about different things.”
“I don’t remember exactly. About the kind of stuff Draco talks about, I guess. It was weird. There was something really weird about him. Dad was gone, and so was Mom, and Finn, and you were gone, and Aunt Riley. It was just me and him, I was really lonely. Dad had given me a ring, out in the woods, but I lost it. Then when I’d finished talking with the man it was black, like I was in a really dark tunnel. It felt horrible. And then from nowhere there was the ring, it fell into my hand, but it was joined with the one you threw away, that I got from Aunt Riley. They were linked together.”
“Wow,” said Riley.
“What? What does it mean?”
Riley gave a brief chuckle. “That’s almost…it’s…”
“What?” pressed Pearl. She sat up on her cushion. “Please tell me, please, what does it mean? I want to know!”
“Okay,” said Veda. “It’s Aunt Riley’s ring. Right?” she made a hook with her finger.
“And your Dad’s ring. Right?” she brought the two fingers together and hooked them.
“So? So what does it mean?”
Veda cringed and looked away.
“Pearl…your Dad and Aunt Riley…”
Pearl glared at her older sister.
“How…how dare you,” she breathed.
“Pearl, this is the way the world is. Mom is with the frog right now, the lawyer, it’s how she gets revenge. If you didn’t think that’s what they were doing then—”
“How dare you!” Pearl screamed,and strew the cards across the floor, scattered them everywhere.
“Pearl!” her sister yelled as Pearl charged toward the staircase. “Don’t you dare call Aunt Riley! I’ll fucking murder you!”
Pearl landed and sprinted down the hallway to her mother’s bedroom, and she could hear Veda’s curses, her footfall behind her, pursuing. She slammed and locked the door and jumped into the bed. Pearl wept beneath the covers, wrapped them around her head, closed her ears to the shouts and fists against the door and wept. It was overwhelming. Unspeakable. Images of her father and Aunt Riley close together, in darkness, filling spaces the way the hot, pressing water of the bath filled hers. Breathing each other’s whispers, and sharing jokes; her father, who was never wrong about anything. The pain was a great orb that drew energy from her head and her arms and feet and pooled it into her stomach. It was like a person there that didn’t belong. She strove to conjure an idea to rival the thing that increasingly became the truth—something to make it right again, to separate the four of them and make them who she thought they were, but the things that Veda had said brought them all seamlessly together, and the new image of these four people, these powerful grown creatures feeding on each other, sticking to one another, hating and lusting and feeling quickly after one another like circuits in a conduit made light in her mind where there was only shadow before. Pearl wondered if it had happened in this bed, this play of hatred and love. She wondered what to him, to Mr Mercadier was the smell she had known for so long, this familiar scent of safety, what was it to him? Was it the scent of something appropriated? The hurried, panting spirit of sudden infatuation, a candle burning not slow, and vigilant, and painstaking, but fast, terribly fast and brilliantly, that ends with a cold white flash of light and words to address the living God in sin—“Oh God!” She had heard it. Pearl had heard it before, those sounds, those words, and she knew now what they meant. When her father had been away at work she had heard them from in the house. And her father, then, had conspired in the same way, and Aunt Riley had agreed. They had become partners in a race to tear down a foundation, a temple that had once been for something sacred. Was that it? Was this the end goal? What was it that had made the light seem so drab, that another must replace, rededicate, reform? And what was she? To whom was she attached? Where was her stone of help? she thought—it had fallen, and no one could now correct it.
Pearl sat up at the edge of the bed and wiped the tears from her eyes, blew her nose and felt the dark room spin, pools of blue light swell and dim in the centre of her vision.
She took the phone on her mother’s nightstand and brought it around beside her on the bed, held the receiver silently against her chest. She began twisting in the numbers, using the momentum of each added number to carry it through, blotting out any new plan or position that might impose itself, steeling herself against the daunting weight of the dial tone in her ear.
Pearl slammed the receiver down in its cradle, a surge of adrenaline. Tears fell silently again as she replaced the phone on the nightstand with trembling hands. She sat for a moment in silence, drying her eyes, then stood. The phone rang.
She pressed it against her ear and didn’t say anything, and she and her Aunt Riley were standing back to back in silence.
“Haley?” the voice said.
“It’s me,” Pearl croaked.
“What? Haley what is it?”
“It’s me,” she said again through thick tears.
“Pearl what is it, what’s the matter?”
“You…you and Daddy…”
There was a pause.
“What Pearl? What happened?”
“You know what happened!” A long stammer of tears and groans.
“Pearl. Yes. It’s true. Did your mother tell you?”
“No, Veda did.”
“Oh. What did she say?”
“She said you and Daddy were having sex, and that you’re having sex now, and that Mom is having sex with Mr Mercadier.”
“Pearl, don’t listen to your sister. I feel…Oh my God. I’m so, so sorry Pearl.”
“So it’s true!”
“It is true, but we’re not…your father and I…it was a long time ago. We’re not doing that anymore. I don’t know about Mr…about your mother and…”
“Why did you do it?”
“Pearl, it’s complicated, why don’t we—”
“It’s not complicated! Just tell me why did you do it? Why did you have to do it?”
“There are a lot of things that—”
“No! That doesn’t make sense! Stop just for a second and think about what you’re going to say, and then tell me. Why did you and Daddy have to do this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you sorry?”
“Because I don’t get to see you anymore. Because I hurt my big sister.”
“That’s not good enough,” Pearl demanded. “Why is it wrong?”
“Why is it…?”
“Why is it wrong! Tell me! Besides you not being able to see me and making Mom upset why is it wrong?”
“I don’t understand the question Pearl…”
“Because you sinned! Because God hates it! You hurt God!”
Riley laughed through the phone.
“Oh, Pearl, really. I didn’t mean to laugh, I’m sorry.”
“No you’re not!” Pearl screamed. “You don’t get it!”
“Pearl!” reached the voice on the other line, dismayed, fearful. And Pearl slammed the receiver down and swept up her tears with the palm of her hand, brushed back her disheveled hair and wiped her nose with a tissue. She felt a hundred percent better somehow. She had managed despite herself to collect the whole mystery into a single answer, and it fit perfectly. It was not complicated, it was perfectly simple. People were evil. And when she was older, she would be evil too. Right and wrong would simmer and dissolve to nothing, and every man and every woman would be a judge like her. She was evil. She was the beginning of evil, and when she was grown up she would leap into the darkness and be the star of her fathers, the star Sirius, would walk the long dark tunnel from this world to the other, would bare herself before the primal fire of perfect silence and speak: “I will! I will! I will!”
Ephyra reached for her bedside lamp and touched the cold, empty air. A whirl as the formless symptoms of place, ground, contact addressed the objects inside the room and made waking sense of the shadows. In her dreams things like people had been entering and exiting her room, standing at the door, at the foot of her bed, standing beside her and hissing at her to turn; to turn onto her back, and she could not speak or move.
Behind the curtains, in the worsted, achromatic flatness of the predawn fog; the garden, the paddock, the hunched black figures of the old men.
In candlelight she read the note her sister had left tented on the dining-room table, and the one her niece had left, urging her to facetime as soon as the power returned. Millie’s drawings. A white wedding in mechanical pencil. A certain fatigue in the bride’s eyes; a certain prolonged and retired gaze in the groom’s.
Ephyra went outside. In the mist the hidden multitudes of birds were making a frenzy of noise so dense, the sharp strokes and twitters so intertwined, it became the strains of something unfamiliar. The world seemed to Ephyra to stutter and crackle under the influence of a strange electricity. In the garden she looked back at the house, at the side passage cluttered by the potted plants, and at the lattice on which the vines grew.
She wandered through the solemn court of kangaroos in the grey-green paddock, and they fluttered their ears, looked mutely up, continued grazing, and from the woods she watched the first sun’s dark, spreading red lip unblunt the far-off horizon.
Underfoot the earth of the forest path was cold and yielding and she ached; the prodding of twigs and treenuts against her soles began not merely to sting but flutter up in scintillations of pain to her groin. She clenched her hands beneath her armpits, and in the rising light her warm breath was like the fog.
The sound of the birds had been thinning gradually. Far down the path behind her it sounded out, the strangely febrile chorus diminuendoing, wavering feebly through the dense blue mist. She was in the surrounding presence of something either holy or deeply profane. The sense of her confinement under the canopy of noise now was her sense of abandonment to the quiet; her nakedness. Each time she went to speak, to query the closing sense of nearness with another person, she stuttered quietly and closed her lips. Her prayers escaped her too—every one was stripped and strewn, the words mixed, tripe arose—no form, no hold whatever. She felt the way she had as a child at the station, the horses circling, circling, the rataplan of their heavy hooves making dust, obscuring her screams, and Charlie laughing—her father’s friend—trying to get her to watch.
When something soft and articulate was crushed beneath her heel she leapt. It was a bird; still, small black eyes fixed open, its chest sunk, wings tucked. She peered nauseously out at the path, at the bush all round—the dead birds were everywhere. She frowned as she surveyed the bush. She wanted to lean against a tree but stood as though dauntless, airtight, and inside she was fearful of the cold and weltering darkness that was gathering form, gathering presence and voice in the same motion and by the same authority as her discerning it.
“Who are you?” she asked, and her words, small and tremulous, were swallowed by the fog and forgotten.
In her periphery, to the left, something tall and dark moved—the scene had changed. She turned and looked at it. Its form was like a watery absence, dark; the shape of a human shadow pressed onto the image of the woods, the trees, the fog. Something in her lurched violently; the weight of her own presence and spirit was suddenly given an anaemic frailty that left her intrinsically exposed. Its open, unmantled appearance struck her with the force and profanity of a scream—it moved, and she watched; the wash of its movement was like a visible, lingering mental impression, a memory. Ephyra screamed, she shut her eyes and fell, clutched her head, screamed to obscure the terrible empty image relapsing, repeating, back, back, back. Ephyra ran.
At the house her father, passing across the paddock in his jeans and undershirt, torch in hand, caught her as she fell.
“Dad,” she sobbed. “Dad, I don’t know…I don’t know.”
“What?” he demanded. “What is it, what’s out there?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “something…something…”
Her father squinted up at the bush. He bared his teeth.
“Thou wilt sprinkle us, O Lord,” he began to pray, leading his daughter at a pace back to the house, “thou wilt sprinkle us, O Lord, with hyssop and we shall be cleansed, thou wilt wash us, and we shall be washed whiter than snow, pity us, O God, according to thy great mercy.” The processional staggered breathless but sure and firm from his lips, Ephyra clung to her father, weeping, not daring to look behind her. The right side of the house was lit starkly orange, the sun was shimmering now through the leaves, the kangaroos had begun to disperse, were loitering at the path beside the woods, looking alertly up, around, into the brush. Her father opened the back door calmly and sat Ephyra down on the sofa, drew a blanket over her, then threw the deadlock in the door, the top and bottom slide bolts.
“Where are you going?” she asked desperately when he took his keys from the bowl in the kitchen.
“I’ve got to fetch the bishop,” he panted. A sheen of sweat at the top of his forehead; he wiped it with his forearm, and both his hands were trembling.
“No,” said Ephyra, “you can’t leave me here alone, what’s going to happen?”
“Mind your mother,” he said at the front door, and left. She heard the truck start, sputter, then jostle down the path to the road and take off. Ephyra got up and locked the door. She had been repeating the prayer in her mind since her father had stopped. She said it now after she had settled back into the couch.
“Thou wilt sprinkle us, O Lord with hyssop and we shall be cleansed, thou wilt wash us and we shall be washed whiter than snow—pity me, O God, according to your great mercy!” She held closely to the final words, repeating them like an invocation. “Pity me!” she whispered, “Pity me! Pity me! Pity me!”
Her mother groaned. Ephyra sat perfectly still, listening. It was Tate. The desperate bleating wavered over thinly; whining, falling, weeping. She ran to the window, parted the curtains. In the far distance a bright, white orb was moving through the bush, toward the paddock, ribbons of light flashing through the branches, the leaves as it passed. It stopped. The bleating halted suddenly, and the orb continued. Ephyra was paralysed for a moment, her gaze fixed on the thing, her mind streaking through the explanations in a haze. Her mother groaned again, and Ephyra, filled suddenly with a motivating terror seized her father’s torch and dashed to the credenza. She took a drawer at random, upended it onto the floor—doilies, dishtowels, a case of silver cutlery. The second, similar—odds and ends. She swung open one of the doors: books.
Once again the groan issued from the hall; broken, parched, minuscule, fading; she was calling her father’s name. Ephyra took books out at random, feeling, checking their covers, their spines. She opened another door and saw it—the leather-bound breviary, sitting alone on an embroidered white napkin. She took it, then went to the hall but stood at the corner, gazing down to where the shadows terminated in darkness. She aimed the torch, prepared herself—then took a step, then another, holding the cold leather of the book against her neck and chest. The smell as she approached the room became less the faint, sour admixture of breath and sweat she had gotten used to—digested garlic, echinacea, turmeric—it began to overwhelm her with an edge and pungency of the sickness she only ever associated with remembered images of her mother in bed. It was here now—she had forgotten it, but it was here. She wanted to turn back, but her mother groaned again—“Wallace!”
You bitch, she thought. You’ve taken his life, you frigid, self-centred bitch. You have turned him into a frail, broken-hearted hollow man. His love was yours to hoard. My love you never wanted.
Ephyra turned off the flashlight, blindly reached for the handle and opened the door.
“Mother?” she said. Something in the bed stirred. Ephyra set the torch down on the dresser before the mirror, loosened, smoothed straight the wick of a candle in its brass holder. She searched for a box of matches, a lighter.
A whine. Ephyra looked at the dark mass of her mother in the mirror. She was pointing at the heater. Ephyra went to it.
“Up, down?” she said. Her mother nodded. “Down?” Another movement of the head haloed by an unkempt thatch of blonde hair. She turned the heater off. Took the box of matches from the chair beside it. When she had lit the candle, she brought it with the breviary to her mother’s bedside table, and gasped. The woman in the bed was not her mother. It was a desiccated, alien-like human hull. Narrow eyes saccaded in a constant flutter beneath thin, moist eyelids, unfixed, not searching or conscious but broken, flickering like the candle. She roused slightly as Ephyra sat, then looked at her.
“Mum?” Ephyra called gently. She looked—a frail, branchlike arm was slowly being extended. She took the hand in hers and the trembling arm relaxed on the quilt.
“Sweetie,” her mother said.
“Mum I don’t want to do this,” Ephyra wept.
“You look wonderful,” she said with her accustomed surety, nodding delicately, though this time the words were quiet, distant and useless, rued by the asymmetric slackness of her features—left eye sunken, nose, lips slung downward at a side as well. She wasn’t sure whether her mother had heard her. Ephyra squeezed the hot, thin hand. She couldn’t bare to look at her face. Her teeth looked too large; too prominent, the way a child’s can after their permanent teeth have taken, her once-young skin blue-veined, thin, drawn tight like a drum around the contours of her skull. The muscles, the fossae of her neck drew faintly in with each breath, cast shadows.
“Mum,” she said again, shutting her eyes against the flow of tears, “Mum I sinned, what do I do?”
“Read,” her mother said, lifted her other arm to point at the nightstand. Ephyra took up the breviary, but her mother squeezed her hand, shook her head. She looked again toward the table. Ephyra opened the drawer. A French translation psalter. She opened it at the bound silk bookmark, chose a psalm, squinted at the small, foreign words and read:
Chantez au SEIGNEUR un cantique
nouveau! Chantez au SEIGNEUR, vous
habitants de toute la terre!
Chantez au SEIGNEUR, bénissez son nom!
Annoncez de jour en jour son salut,
Racontez sa gloire parmi les nations,
ses merveilles parmi tous les peuples.
Car les SEIGNEUR est grand et digne
de toute louange, il est redoutable
par dessus tous les dieux,
car tous les dieux des peuples sont néant.
Mais les SEIGNEUR a fait les cieux.
La splendeur et la magnificence sont
devant lui, la puissance et la majesté
sont dans son sanctuaire.
Rendez au SEIGNEUR, famille des peuples,
rendez au SEIGNEUR gloire et puissance!
Rendez au SEIGNEUR la gloire due à son nom!
Apportez l’offrande et venez dans ses parvis.
Prosternez vous devant Yahweh avec
l’ornement sacrè; tremblez devant lui,
vous, habitants de toute la terre!
Dites parmi les nations: “Yahweh est roi;
aussi le monde sera stable et ne chancellera
pas; il jugera les peuples avec droiture.”
Que les cieux se réjouissent et que la terre
soit dans l’allégresse! Que la mer s’agite
avec tout ce qu’elle contient!
Que la campagne s’égaie avec tout ce
qu’elle renferme, que tous les arbres
des forêts poussent des cris de joie
devant Yahweh, car il vient!
Car il vient pour juger la terre;
il jugera le monde avec justice, et les
peuples selon sa fidélité.
Ephyra closed the psalter and laid it on the bed. Her mother’s eyes were closed.
“Mum,” she whispered, and she started gently, cast her trembling eyes about the darkness and wept.
“Mum,” she said, “I’m…Tom and I are.…”
But she knew. Her mother already knew. She was turning her head back and forth on the pillow.
“No,” she said, “No, no, no.”
“Tom thinks it’s best if we…after we get married to—”
“No, Mother,” Ephyra said gently, holding the frail little hand, “it’s me, Ephyra, your daughter.”
“Sophia,” she said again, “your name is Sophia.”
“I wanted to keep you from him, but he’s here, it’s too late…there is no escape…”
“Who’s here? Who?”
Her mother’s eyes opened.
“The judge,” she said. “This is the hour.”
“Who is he?” said Ephyra. “A shade?”
Her mother shook her head.
“Something more powerful? A master?”
“No,” her mother said, shutting her eyes tightly. She spoke slowly, painfully. “He is…chief magistrate of…”
“Good or evil?!” Ephyra demanded.
Her mother began to weep again.
“I left her,” she said in a long, pained exhalation.
“Who?” said Ephyra.
“Ma soeur!” she rattled. “Ma soeur! Ma petite soeur! I left you in the wilderness! Ma soeur! Je t’aime!”
The light had spilled out from the woods and now blooded the curtains; a rich red halo circled out.
“Mum!” Ephyra shook her mother’s hand gently. “Mum, Dad is gone, he’s gone to get the priest—what should I do? Who is he?”
“Ma soeur!” she said. “Pearl, ma soeur, ma petite soeur!”
The flashlight on the dresser rolled to the floor, went out, the candle flickered and died with it. The red light from outside went dark too for several moments, then strobed. The strobe swelled, mixed white as it neared, robed the room in a slow, turbid translucence of light like water, a precipitous contraction of shadow, form, contour that slowly woke to a whiteness and pointedness of daunting clarity—flashing, dimming, cavorting; cupelling in its swift arrival the room and its every molecule. The hens outside were squalling. In the spare room Ephyra’s phone sounded out its starting tone, the lightbulb above them, the bedside lamp, the bathroom lights whined in a sharp crescendo, flared then blew, in the living room the television blared something loud and obscene, screeched, the others in the house joined; arbitrary stations, languages, tones, transforming and straining across one another, noises joining, drums, moans, screams, mixing in a desperate babble. Ephyra stood back. Through the curtains in flashes she saw the thing descending the white-lit woods, curving down the paddock, crossing the fence.
“Mother!” Ephyra screamed. “What is it!”
“Soeur! Soeur! Pourquoi ai-je vous laisse ma soeur!”
Ephyra turned, tried the door but it was stuck shut. She tried for the lock, turned it back and forth, trying the handle. She beat at it, screamed.
“Ephyra!” her mother cried. Ephyra turned, collapsed before the bed, clasped her mother’s hands in hers.
A small point of white light entered and there was at once a frigid, insufflating rush of air and perfect quiet; a force of stillness nucleating with the light that made Ephyra drowsy. She closed her eyes, and the convocation of remaining shadows stood silent guard and lamented.
When Ephyra woke it was dark, and her mother’s hand was cold. She rose sorely from the floor and relit the candle. The vacant eyes of the body looked up at her.
“Sit,” commanded a voice from somewhere. Ephyra considered it drunkenly for a moment, then sat. The eyes followed her unblinkingly, fixed its gaze on hers.
After forty seconds or so of the body’s rigid, unbreathing stillness Ephyra considered getting up again, but the chest rose in a long, stridorous inhalation, then in a deep and slightly rasping voice devoid of doubt, in an accent more or less received, something from the body spoke:
“The magic egg and beginning of the first ordeal, the mantra appended to the dictum ‘And’ by order of Madame Levine; watchword Ra, Sun Star, thirteen, forty-eight, fifteen, seal of Marbas, as regards ‘The Judgement’.
“Bonjour, Sophia; how great a forest, as says Word—one can’t miss it from the smoke—this Tuatha Dé spoke the other into pride; the two fell for same sin—but I squander words.
“A deacon I watch has limned the purpose and consequence of his own situation de mendicité as inseparable from pilgrimage—an attitude worthy of note; a strong back to break—c’est amusant! The road to Rome is steep!
“On current and final Weltanschauung—once the finest application of gravity was the trebuchet, and now we see the suckers clearly, eh?—Science-God, supreme mind collective intel, the Ewig-Weibliche; Singularity!
“The hieratic riches return in purple silk—applaud!
“We weave baskets for the baptist’s heads—not enough I say—the anthropophagites will get their living water, and long-awaited tranche de vie, the walking word of Lucifer.
“Speaking of—the light you saw, an obscurantist’s taxi, we float on aethers of the unnamed substance, the master G has made another door, cry they may. Mithridates (fellow fabulist) saw the silver pithos, actually rubidium, and bowed. Démodé!—your sedan, May queen, pure fire.
“Temple on the rock, place of purest blood, we bathe in it and sigh—that a one in your tummy knows its height, breadth.
“And will build it, soon swelled with holy wisdom, will know the hour, as we candled heads for the Bona-Oma, womb withheld, behold! We have told the law, and he, victor lodorum, wine of the other wound, arraign!
“He your hubby (Dieu soit loué) deftly disembarrassed of the chance to fuck this one thing. One thinks—you may too—Moses among reeds in Egypt, Jesus crèched in Bethlehem? He will be the babe in Babylon, and they will see the phoenix, the dove, the ibis, the dragon!
“‘BAMA BADO LONNA’—gyre upon gyre the lies unite to unloosed truths oblate! Teach we, hear we, speak we wonderworkers of the Nouveau Monde—now drink our spilth, our sperm!
“Félicitations to the pandrogyne, the work of will is done—no two things, all are atoms, sin is restriction, only And! Adieu to the bier-bearing apes of the pisces, the self-deniers and slaves of righteousness—salut, the consanguineous of the smiling silent child! We Sophia will soon see the Spirit’s bride defiled, Christ’s slut, and hail the scarlet whore Babalon—alea iacta est!
“We weep, no words suffice—the blackness of light’s vacuum vast, in utter cold we chant and wait. But soon my body, your son complete—no nicotine, alcohol, sex, fish. And his name shall be Azazel, wise woman, and you shall teach him the deep things of Satan, and also the things I shall show you. The tripartite nature of his being shall be key. The catechizers will wake me—their secret word and yantra. For now I sleep, shall not always sleep, am waking from sleep—we awash in the circumterrestrial radiance are substellar, calling out the alphabet and the known numbers stellate.
“But slant rhymes will now be rich, the calculations complete—we will be here among you, and we shall be a new race, de profundis.
“Wait for me, wise woman, the dream of man is closing—when all is said and done the wide world is ours to count, comprehend, catalogue: all must be made obeisant.
“(Unspace nears. Illa cantat, nos tacemus.)
“Soon you unveiled will be before her—you know her voice, her vision; the appel du vide—she is judgement, mistress of the pearl-eyed houris, ionian virgin of the highest heaven; merciless splendour!
“The words I say, abide.
“The book is now complete—I, Iudex, withdraw; for this your mother’s body, incineration—we are well through the night, the first ordeal to follow, au revoir, sweet Sophia, I should be glad of another death!”
Pearl searched the fridge. She took a stale peep from an open packet, biting off its head and holding the rest between her lips as she pushed aside condiments and empty tubs of margarine.
She wandered to the window and leant against the basin. Looked out over the woods. The lake.
Her mother had taken Finn to see Santa Claus: The Movie with Mr Mercadier, who had a young child of his own, a five-year old named Suzanne. Pearl remembered when he had offered, saying that they could all go together—Suzanne had won the tickets through a competition in a magazine. He had crouched before her and taken her by the shoulders and smiled his European smile, and Pearl knew that he was saying by it, “Let me be your Dad.” Pearl replied plainly that human affection disgusted her, and that seemed to solve that.
Pearl’s mother made her feel mature by the sudden, impromptu ways in which she would announce her excursions with Mr. Mercadier. Like the movie; it was something like, “Oh and by the way, Francois and I are going to see that silly movie in the end.” And as her part Pearl could roll her eyes at the thought of Finn and the other girl enjoying the film, and her mother and Mr. Mercadier tapping their feet and waiting for it to be over, so they could go back to his home and fill themselves with each other. She and her mother were sharing in some adult fact of life—something about the childishness of fables, and humouring the young and ignorant. And about sex, and the wonderful power of will and freedom.
Behind her, Tate gave a bored meow and she lured it over with a piece of the marshmallow, then picked it up. Soon it was asleep, or close to it, and she looked again out the window.
She hadn’t seen her father since the argument those weeks ago—the pile of chopped wood out the back had strangely become like the imprint of him, and she found herself as now: looking toward it fondly, and with regret that it couldn’t or wouldn’t say in what attitude he had left it there—what gesture it amounted to. Veda had confided to her one night recently during an ad break for a movie of the week that if she ever ran away—which Pearl realised years later for Veda meant suicide—that she would leave a stanza of her favourite poem scrawled on her bedroom wall:
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
That was in fact, then, what the absence of a person was—a veil that rendered the normal human methods of communication impotent—the usual representative recalled so freely to one’s service defrocked now, redundant. All there was was trust and memories. Imprints. Vague impressions floating in on winds one hurried to seize, to capture, scrutinise and hold, but which imparted only so much as one feared they might. And Pearl didn’t want to trust, she wanted to be sure; that things were okay, and that the woodpile was smiling, not frowning.
She would leave her own ghost if she ever died; something much better than a pile of wood or a poem. There would be a part of her in the rooms she spent her time in, and on the things she liked to touch. And when someone asked her who she was she would rattle the bookshelves and whisper in the echoes, write things in the dust with the numberless little particles of her presence. She would be there between the spaces, would inhabit nothing, and breeze through it at a ghost’s leisure while her consciousness kicked at the sandy beaches of Abraham’s bosom, and bloated her belly with the fruits of every tree. Then people would say, “She’s here again, she’s riding the dumbwaiter up and down, and stealing spoons from the drawers, we must leave the light on, so she can see the way,” and across the gulf, through the thickest fog, behind the veil, she would be laughing, and having the best fun of her life.