When I came down, Granpa’s door was barely open. A blade of candlelight from inside crossed the floor and the living room couch. Mom whispered orders. Someone prayed. When I peeked in, Mom’s hand touched the bed and her other was on Granpa’s chest. In the candlelight his mask was too thin, too much like his face. His chin had fallen. Someone closed his eyes.
I went upstairs and practiced lying stiff, my own eyes and mouth gaping in the dark, and wondered if the silence I heard would go away, if a deeper quiet would come, something Granpa could now hear. I sank backward into my mattress. I felt death like fast water rise and run over my sheets, my pillow, my ears and shoulders, the whole length of me submerged, all but my nose, a lump in the fast surface. I listened until my heart became loud, a meat-faced giant with bloody boots stomping through a village, so I awoke again and practiced not listening. I concentrated on all that was left of me, my open nostrils like two diminishing circles of breath that rose and fell.
Next came the noise of the birds and the light. Already the horizon sizzled. The distant pop and crackle of firecrackers was steadily marked more and more by an echoing boom. I remembered the excitement and the fireworks—it was the Fourth of July—and all the things my brother Rocky taught me that summer: M80s, bottle rockets, sizzlers, ashcans, and bottom-blasters.
Granpa was dead on the Fourth! He had looked like a dead man for so long and though I’d never known him when he wasn’t out of his mind, I couldn’t imagine the Fourth without him. Our entire family, all the Fitzgeralds and the Tomasinos (Aunt Maureen had married an Italian) always staked out the front of the Belleville firehouse with lawn chairs and coolers and boxes of sparklers for anyone who wanted one and all of us came to wave at Granpa in his fire chief’s hat and sash as he rode smiling like a mummy on display and waving from his own beach chair strapped to the roof of the hook and ladder. He’d been chief of the Volunteers for thirty years and honorary Parade Master every Fourth since he retired. The Fourth was the one day he got out of his pajamas. At home, he was skin and bones, his shoulders a hanger draped in a yellowed terrycloth robe as he wandered the house, as quiet as the cats. Dad explained I should treat him more like a four-year-old than a grown-up and be as patient as I would with any of my littlest cousins.
But Granpa and I had a running game of Tom and Jerry. Once I tied kite string around his ankles while he slept sitting up on the couch and when at last he stood, he toppled over the coffee table like a two-by-twelve. He didn’t even have time to put his hands out. Another time I dropped a shrew down the back of his union suit. His hair grew a little long and shaggy now and then and I got my cousins, the little Tomasino twins, Lynnie and Marie, walking tippy-toes and whispering, to put curlers in his hair while he snored. In return, I expected him if I was at my homework in the den or the kitchen having a doughnut. I could smell him or just know he was behind me and turn in time, before he put a gunnysack over my head or screeched in my ear. Once, a fireplace poker came down across my bowl as I lifted a spoonful of Cheerios. Milk went everywhere, onto the walls, the floor behind me, all over my shirt and face. Another time I was at the table doing penmanship when somehow I knew, thanks to an unmistakable sensation, a steak knife was at my temple. What I loved was to be in a quiet room, alone with my baseball cards or a book and realizing he was there too, in the chair next to me or standing with his back to the bookshelves and staring at me, his eyes lit like candles.
When Dad came to me with the news, I was in the living room watching Sunday morning cartoons. I listened politely and turned back to the TV. What concerned me though was the arrival from Vermont of my cousin Doreen, who always came for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth. I was eleven and she was only nine but already in the fifth grade and smarter in her school than anyone. As far as they knew, I tolerated her because she was good at sports, being double-jointed, with quick, wiry little monkey legs. Because she was two years younger and a girl, I didn’t always treat her well, but secretly I loved her more than anyone. Always after she went home, she was all I thought of for weeks, the first thing when I opened my eyes in the morning and again as I had my cereal. For days I had long imaginary conversations with her. She was the last thing at night I saw before I fell asleep.
She was so pretty, it pained me to look at her. Her chin and cheeks and forehead were so perfectly shaped and so empty of freckles I could barely remember what she looked like. She used to squinch her nose and follow me everywhere when she was five, no matter how mean I was. Now her nose was as straight as a line drawn with a ruler and her glasses always slid down so she could peer over at me with her small gray eyes. Sometimes her eyes were green or blue, depending on her mood or the time of day, whether I was telling lies or not, whether she hated or loved me, though I never knew which color meant which.
She must have loved Granpa more than I did. She was crying into a big hanky when she stepped out of the car into the driveway. She wouldn’t look at me, though I’d been waiting for her all morning. She had come straight from church in her white stockings and blue round-toed shoes but when she finally looked at me I was startled at what a mess she was.
Aunt Angela was a mess, too. Her nose-blowing sent all three cats—Spooky, Clumpy, and mine, Ratface—around back. Uncle Paul, in a black suit and black tie, looked like he might be dead, too. He sat bolt upright in the driver’s seat and stared over the wheel after Angela and Doreen left the two passenger doors wide open.
Doreen just stood in the gravel, gripping her hanky. She stared at her shoes, her shoulders all jumpy as she sucked her lips. I looked hard at her and wondered why she was putting on this show. I had waited all morning and now that she was here, I despised her, as if she were some dressed-up circus chimp. Was she the one I loved? I wondered how to get rid of her.
Angela clumped noisily up the steps and pulled my head to her big bosom and squeezed me. She smelled sweet and sweaty, her bare arms hot on my neck for a moment before she ran indoors where the noise, the wailing, thanks to the Italians, began in earnest.
For a long time I stared curiously at Doreen, until I got bored with the pathetic little battle between her lips and her eyes.
“Hi, Doreen,” I said. “You submarine.”
Her gray eyes flashed green outrage and blue injustice. Then she said, “Hi,” and exploded into tears.
I thought of something and ran into the house. When I got back, I had two orange popsicles. She had gotten better hold of herself by then, the hanky and both her hands were in her pockets.
“Popsicle?” I asked.
She scowled. “How can you be thinking about popsicles?”
I looked at her for a long time, almost telling her I was glad Granpa Fitz was dead, then decided against it. I felt lovesick for a second, holding the two melting treats in my fists. Then I hated her again.
“Nothing wrong with popsicles,” I said. “I don’t care who died.”
“Aren’t you even upset?” she said.
“What?” I said, pretending I hadn’t understood.
“Aren’t you upset?” This time she screamed, her fists and front pockets forced down hard into the depths of her lap as she leaned toward me, peering up into my eyes, as if to see the inner dome of my empty skull.
“Why should I?” I shouted.
“Granpa Fitz is dead!”
This made me so angry, my shoulders, my arms, my whole body shook. How could she be such a little lap-dog? Who put her up to this?
“Haven’t you any sense?” I said, mimicking Mom.
“What did you say?” she said.
I could have screamed, but I whispered, “Granpa’s not dead!”
“What?” she said. “You’re sick.”
“He’s not dead,” I said. “You’ll see. At the parade. Granpa wouldn’t miss the parade. Not ever. Even if he was dead.”
Now her eyes were red with hatred. Her mouth was open, gasping for air.
“Cross my heart,” I said as she watched. I dragged my finger twice across my shirt. “Hope to die.”
There was such a fuss all morning. Two reporters from the Belleville Sentinel, the EMTs, the county coroner, the police and all the stupid little second-cousins in their church clothes came marching back and forth past us as Doreen and I sat on the porch in sunlight. We had covered a lot of ground by then.
“I can’t imagine what it’s all about,” I said and stood up. “Mom knows. So does Pop. I don’t see why everyone’s faking.”
Normally Doreen took a superior attitude whenever I got into a fix as ridiculous as this, but what pleasure our secret gave her by now. She peered intelligently down her perfect nose through her lenses at the yard, as if the inexplicable situation were some iridescent insect crawling across a slate. By then I had so easily enlisted her that I was unbearably bored. Where was Rocky? The morning before, he and Bean, his best friend, dragged me out of bed and assigned me a bag of dinged golfballs to carry down through the woods by the country club, where Bean buried the capped butt of a lead pipe in a mound of dirt. A hundred yards away, beyond an electric fence and a meadow, was the target we could see with Beanie’s binoculars. When everything was ready, he struck a match and held it while he peered through his binoculars with the other hand. Once he shouted FIRE, Rocky set an M80 to the flame then dropped it into the pipe. I shoved in a golfball and we dove for cover.
That was fun. There had been no wind and Rocky had our cannon calibrated so that pretty soon we hit the tee every shot. After the blast Bean jumped to his feet with his spyglasses and watched the old guys tee up, smoking cigars, climbing in and out of their carts oblivious to the white ordnance that bounced in their midst and danced into the high trees. Bean wouldn’t let us touch his binoculars but he gave a full report of what happened each time and Rocky made adjustments. Before long we were rolling in the dirt. One big fat guy Bean called Butterballs was so slow-moving we took three shots at him.
“Once,” Doreen said, interrupting my thoughts, “I heard Mommy say how rich she’ll be once Daddy kicks off. They both laughed but I didn’t think it was funny. Dad said if he could just convince the insurance company (Doreen looked gravely at me when she said these two words) into believing he’d fallen into the incinerator at the garbage plant, we could live like royalty. Daddy said he’d grow a long beard and come back to get hired as her gardener. That was really all he ever wanted anyway, to just dig in the dirt like a dumb old gardener.”
She put the palms of her hands up and looked at me with big eyes. I wondered if I should ditch her and head now for the woods or wait until Rocky came for me. Rocky was always out of the house before all of us. He might not even know about Granpa yet and I suspected I knew where to find him. But shouldn’t they have come and got me? Maybe Bean couldn’t get any more M80s.
“Maybe Granpa just wants to fool the insurance company so we can all live like royalty,” she said and put her chin on her knee. I could see her thinking, how do royalty live? I had no clue either and before long I went down the steps to kick gravel out of the driveway onto the lawn. After she said a few more stupid things I realized I was furious at her for buying in so easily, but when I looked at her sideways she caught my eye, becoming suspicious at once.
“Granpa’s dead,” she hissed and her lip began to waver. I hated her so much then I shivered.
“He is not, stupid.”
“Is too!” She spit the words at my feet.
“I’ll prove it to you,” I said. “At the parade.”
“You won’t!” she said, without looking up.
“Goddamn you to hell,” I said. “You’ll see.”
At noon Mrs. Falato arrived, trailed by her sons Mark and Paul with huge trays of ham, roast beef and sliced cheeses in their arms. They ran back out and returned with another tray of subs and three cases of root beer. Doreen and I had made tentative peace by then and ate in a hurry on the porch. The commotion inside, the crying, the laughter and the drinking (the liquor cabinet had been opened early in the morning) reached a hysterical volume. When we were done we hid our plates under the hedge and charged through the Whalens’ yard out to London Road and ran the whole way into town. Our place in front of the firehouse was already taken so we ran for a long time on the sidewalk, through the dense crowd of families past the Comet Market, the Presbyterian Church, past Albee’s stationers and the hardware store.
“Wait!” said Doreen and stopped and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. I breathed fast too, but waved at her to come. The parade was about to start and we wouldn’t see a thing. When she pointed up behind me, I knew what she meant. No one was up by the flag yet except a fifth grader named Jamison who was bouncing a basketball against the pole. We ran and ducked through the gate and up the steps and arrived in full sunshine with a perfect view.
We claimed our places on the wall. We sat a minute until I said, “Save my seat” and ran back down the stairs and under the rail again, through the crowd and into Albee’s where I found myself looking up at the counter and a Styrofoam pyramid bristling with twenty-five-cent flags. Mr. Albee had turned to the top shelf for sun lotion a woman in a straw hat had asked about. In no hurry, I reached for a flag for Doreen. Then took one for me. Mr. Albee was still searching the shelf. I waited and watched him. A second later I was outside in the sunshine again, lost in the crowd. Flags waved everywhere. Everyone was all smiles. It must have been the warmest, sunniest, friendliest day in the history of America. When I heard the drums my heart nearly burst. Already our wall was a throng of kids and I charged up the steps to find Jamison standing in my spot next to Doreen.
“Hey!” I said and she looked at him sullenly.
“He’s just there till you get back,” she said.
“No, I ain’t,” he said. He had the basketball under his arm and a stripe of chocolate went from his mouth almost to his ear. He looked at me and tossed a crumpled Hershey’s wrapper into the crowd below.
“That’s my spot,” I said but he just smiled and gave me the finger.
When the trumpets sounded everyone turned, even Jamison, and I shoved him so hard he fell over an empty stroller. His basketball went bouncing onto the road. He was too surprised to even cry and the last I saw of him some adults with a picnic basket and a baby had jostled him out of the way.
“You’ll see,” I said and turned to give Doreen a flag. I said it again as the VFW brass came marching down the hill and she turned her eyes from me. Despite the excitement, the brass were a dull gang in suits and sashes and I would have shouted something rude if not for the majorette who marched in front. She was a lady I never saw except on the Fourth. I wondered who she was, embarrassed and thrilled by her tall white hat and feather, the black curls that framed her pretty pointed face, the short white marching skirt as it flapped about her thighs and her white boots that went up and up past her knees. She twirled the baton over her head, around her back and through her legs. I stared and stared at the white gloves over the elbows of her otherwise bare arms, hypnotized by a strange desire, and could find no escape from her until the Vietnam vets finally hit the drums at the hilltop. Then they sounded the trumpets and tubas and their fabulous band played medleys of tunes like “I Feel Good” and “Shake That Thing” and a jazzy version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
We had to stand on our toes to see Jonah O’Neil. He was the most famous war hero in Belleville now because of the things he had done in Vietnam and the collection of mementos everyone said he kept in a safe in his mom’s basement. Rocky once said Jonah had eyes like a cruel retard, which had given me nightmares, but he looked pitiful and bloated when I finally saw him, with giant elephant legs, the purple nose, his face the color of a spoiled ham. No one laughed at him as he marched in his fatigues, which were tight enough to burst the buttons and zippers, or the green beret bobby-pinned to the side of his head.
Next came the Korean War vets. Granpa had been a major in Korea and these were his best pals. Like the group before them, they followed Old Glory but all had their jaws squared and their corsairs tilted jauntily on their heads. Mr. Reid, who was a Scot and must have done something in Korea as well marched alongside them in a kilt and a bearskin busby. Mostly because of the busby, they got warm applause.
Amidst all the shouting and applause and laughter, the crying, the squealing babies, the sea of flags, the noise of the bands and the fire engine strobing red and blue intermittently beyond the hill, Doreen had been silent. Now and then she stood on tip-toes for a minute to scan the crowd. Once I got tired and sat down next to her feet. Her knees and her ankles in those little white socks were so pretty I wanted to close my eyes.
“Granpa rides the hook-and-ladder,” I said, looking up at her. Since she obviously knew, she didn’t bother to answer. I wanted to tell her Granpa never marched with the WWII vets either, when they came down the hill, but that would have been pointless also. All of them—except Mr. Cleary, who had lung cancer— had always looked bigger and stronger than him. They carried an attitude of victory and heroism in a way none of the others who had come before them had and a hush came over the crowd. No one shouted. Everyone stared at this, the largest troop of all, white-haired, bone-skinny or pot-bellied old geezers in sashes and corsairs marching silently below us as I tried to imagine all the Krauts and Japs they must have killed.
This year only three from WWI were alive. They rode in a racing blue Corvette convertible driven nervously by Lucy Farr, the prom queen who must have just gotten her license. Mr. Pilsen, who was ninety-two, kept standing in the tiny back seat to throw kisses and wave his flag but Mr. Stuart who sat in front in a kaiser hat turned around every few seconds and pushed him down into his seat. The other old guy, whose name I didn’t know, seemed asleep in the back as he slouched forward, resting his big strawberry of a nose on Lucy’s shoulder.
After that came the Civil War cannons. They were pulled by horses, the big wooden spokes in a blur followed by a dozen ponies of the Kilsy Civil War & Cavalry Club. The ponies were mounted this year by Union riders with blue uniforms, sabers, black boots and white gloves. All kinds of things came next—three librarians from the public library; Boy Scout troop number 111; the Belleville Brownies; the Masons; the Farr County Clown Club. The freshmen marching band, in torn-up, ketchup-stained blouses and bandages, canvas knickers and tricornered hats came near the end and sent a wave of laughter and applause through the crowd by playing their disorganized “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with tin whistles, flutes, a parade drum, a triangle and a bugle. It seemed the whole thing would never end when a cheer went up that was so loud Doreen covered her ears and sat down. I tapped her shoulder and handed her my flag. The cheer went up again and I realized the firemen marching in front of the engines, Irishmen to a man, were singing. The crowd all up and down the street began to sway and join in too, though by then whatever it was sounded more like a brawl than a song.
As the hook-and-ladder approached I could barely see over the shoulders of the grown-ups. The third cheer was so loud I had to scream at Doreen. She took my hand and I leapt to my toes in time to see Granpa’s sash and the fire hat laid out on the seat of his empty lawn chair, which had been duct-taped to the roof over the red cab and floated away from us, far out in the middle, like a toy boat on a wide colorful river.
Doreen let go of my hand. I looked up the street and down toward St. Paul’s. The commotion was everywhere the same. Everyone in the world had crowded onto the streets of Belleville. Weekenders from Boston and New York and Montreal had come for a peek at our majorette, our soldiers, our hook-and-ladder bearing an empty lawn chair dressed with a red fire chief’s hat and a green sash. For a minute the noise and crowd were complete, a deafening loneliness, the same as the silence I heard in the morning in my bed, after concentrating so long on the puzzle of Granpa’s absence.
Doreen sat at my feet and covered her ears again. It was the strangest thing, that Granpa Fitz was dead, as if something too big to see had changed—and changed everything else in ways that were too small to see. I sat down next to her, only half intending cruelty as I whispered into her delicate hair, but she shook her head, eyes closed, hands over her ears, to stop me.
I tried again but she was trapped by something. She kept her ears covered and shook and shook her head. I waited, until a platoon of state troopers on Harley Davidsons cleared the road with their metal thunder and brought me to my feet. Rocky loved motorcycles more than anything on earth. More than God. Almost as much as he loved Granpa. You could never say anything against Granpa or the Ultra Glides when Rocky was around. Where the hell was he? Shouldn’t someone find him? And tell him? Did he know? I searched the crowd for him but it was pointless. I checked the front of the firehouse. I watched the formation of white helmets pass below us and disappear into a rumble in the crowd, then turned back to the confusion up the street. Everywhere a thousand red, white and blue flags waved. When I saw Doreen’s hands over her face, I figured at least now she could hear.
I knelt and said, “Hello, Doreen. You jelly bean. Did you see him?”
She turned a savage, unfocused glare at me. She stared at my mouth now, hating me with perfect reason, as if I’d led her into a dangerous place then run off and left her.
“Did you?” she answered. “Did you, honestly?” Something in her eyes scared me.
I almost said it was a stupid question and didn’t matter anyway. She had been such a sucker. In a moment of violent confusion I had to stand, turning my back on her, and run to the flagpole which I kicked and kicked. I began to shake and the shaking took hold of me until my nose itched. I rubbed it furiously with the backs of my hands but my cheeks got hotter, my lips and all the muscles from my nose to my chin cinched tight by the time she called me, and asked me again.
When I turned she was standing with both flags in her hand, as if offering me a flower. I showed her a fist and said I would strangle her, anything to shut her up. I pointed a finger too close to her eye. She only frowned and crossed her arms. Then she scrunched her nose and looked past me over her glasses.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Peter Brown from A Bright Soothing noise
During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or they bowed— and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most minuscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.
But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.
The purpose of binding women’s feet, as I’m sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women’s bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters’ feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.
Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.
One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. “Where have you been, Little Brother?” Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.
“Swimming,” said Changming.
Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?
“I’m learning,” her brother said. “At school. At school I am learning to swim.”
“At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school.”
“I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school.”
“The pool at school,” she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. “The pool at school,” she said again.
When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.
“Papa,” she said. “I want to learn to swim.”
Her father’s eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.
“Females do not swim,” he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.
Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.
“I want to. I believe it will be good for me.”
“Females have no need to swim,” her father countered.
“I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”
Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. “What is this need?” he asked. “Have we not provided you with everything you need?”
“No, Papa,” she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. “You see, my Lotus shoes”—by which she meant her deformed feet—“prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world.”
“Desirous,” Papa said. “Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband.”
“Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim.”
Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father’s favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.
“Must?” her father said.
“I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it.”
“Must and must again.”
She said nothing.
“Your need is strong.”
She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.
“So be it,” he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.
The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.
She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.
Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.
Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she’d visited.
She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.
She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.
Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he’d been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength. But he also thought: She must never have loved us. Any of us.
Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Temporium by Kelly Cherry.
Yoshi Takamata moved from Kyoto to Connecticut at the age of fifteen, and his three years of American high school, followed by four years at local college and two decades in New York City, had done little to soften the severe Japanese accent he greeted me with after I had climbed a flight of stairs on Chambers Street to find my new master.
It was Yoshi’s accent that assured me I was in the right place. The dojo itself was dishearteningly rundown, a converted dance studio with water- damaged ceilings, a warped wooden floor, and a wall of tall, dirty windows, only half of which opened. There was no visible training gear other than a blue multipaneled gymnastics mat and a curved wooden sword propped in the corner. A flimsy cloth curtain separated the two locker rooms, each looking to fit no more than a half dozen people at a time.
“Come in to my office,” Yoshi growled, bowing. I bowed in return, slipped off my shoes, and padded behind him in my dark socks.
Yoshi’s office was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the dojo. On the walls hung framed photographs of Yoshi at different ages, flinging opponents through the air by their wrists and shoulders, and kicking apples off of swords while blindfolded.
Yoshi gestured for me to sit in the visitor’s chair. I faced him across the slim wooden desk. He folded his hands, interlacing his fingers. Where his starchy white uniform had been rolled up at the cuffs, I could see his smooth forearms, like the skin of a mannequin.
“I’m looking for a new master,” I said.
“It’s been almost ten years since I last trained. I don’t know how it happened. I stopped just after college. I had a red belt but I moved for work and then somehow the years went by.”
“Are you married?” he said.
“That’s usually how it happens.”
“I’m engaged,” I said.
“Congratulations. I was engaged once. Very nice girl. She plays violin for an orchestra.”
“But you didn’t marry her.”
“My family was disappointed.” Yoshi shrugged. “What can you do?”
He plucked two hard candies from a ceramic bowl on his desk and offered me one. A student of his, I later learned, worked for a candy distributor and kept Yoshi’s office supplied with treats. Most of the students provided free services to the dojo at one time or another. A red-belt lawyer had drafted the insurance release form. A blue-belt carpenter had built the shelves in the women’s locker room. Another blue belt, a computer engineer, had designed the website.
Yoshi rolled the candy around in his mouth and asked me what it was, exactly, that I wanted to learn. Why had I come back? To get in shape? For self-defense? Was I bored of the gym?
“I’d like to be able to put someone in excruciating pain,” I said.
“You want to fight.”
I shook my head. “That’s just kicking and punching. I want to learn how to incapacitate someone. So painful they can’t even think.”
“That is a . . . unusual desire.”
He stood and walked out of the office. A moment later, when it was clear that Yoshi wasn’t returning, I followed him out. I regretted offending him. I should have said that I sought spiritual enrichment. Standing by the door, I slipped my shoes back on and tied the laces. “Sorry if I’ve wasted your time,” I said.
Yoshi smiled. He seemed acutely relaxed, his round, wide face displaying the expressionless gaze of serenity etched into the sculptures of gods. We shook hands.
Then my thumb exploded.
It’s a bad habit to shut your eyes when you’re attacked. Maybe it comes from the childhood belief that if you don’t see it, it will hurt less, as if viewing pain were necessary to its transmission. Or maybe it’s just the opposite, and shutting your eyes is a kind of dedication, a devotion to the momentary annihilation that agony brings. Either way, I suffered in astonished blindness. When I finally reopened my eyes, I found myself kneeling on the hardwood floor, freshly released from Yoshi’s vicious grip. I could feel a circle of heat throbbing around the distressed bones of my limp hand.
“Welcome,” Yoshi said.
I began studying under Yoshi that autumn. Although my previous master had been a triathlete who demanded a brutal level of conditioning from his students, Yoshi possessed something beyond a physical excellence that, with enough diligence and training, I hoped I would one day achieve. There was a fluidity and ruthlessness to his movements that made him seem impossible to stop. His speed was careless, his strength inscrutable, his touch adhesive and pitiless. He was shadowy, emotionless, disinterestedly cruel. At times, when facing him, I felt like I was facing death. Only unlike the invisible figure that had recently claimed my father, for all my new master’s terrifying skill, Yoshi was tangible, reachable, even interrogable.
But he did not always answer the questions asked of him. Many times he would ignore them, or else answer an entirely different question. One evening, I was struggling to understand how to move an opponent who was resisting me. I had failed to predict the difficulty of inflicting great suffering, that what life had meted out casually to my family I had to labor to reproduce and, consequently, control. Yoshi told me to create a space for the person to fall into. “But how do I get them into that space?” I asked.
We were standing alone on the thin blue mats. Class had just ended, and a few students were waiting outside the overcrowded locker rooms for their turn to change, checking their phones for missed calls and messages.
“Look at Oriana’s feet,” Yoshi said.
I craned my neck to see them. “You mean the way she positions her toes?”
“They are sexy little feet,” he said.
“I guess,” I said, confused.
“Haven’t you ever noticed them?”
“You must learn to look down. Where the eye goes, the mind follows.”
Yoshi raised an eyebrow. “Tonight I think it is time we celebrate your promotion. Too much seriousness is not good for a man, Mr. Wallace!”
Only a year had passed since I had joined Yoshi’s dojo, but my devotion, along with my previous training, had sped my advancement, and Yoshi had recently made me an assistant instructor. After changing out of our uniforms, we went to the Irish pub across the street. The bartender was one of Yoshi’s students, a handsome young yellow belt with a shaved head. He brought us a round of free drinks.
“Thank you, Billy,” Yoshi said and scooped a handful of peanuts from a dish. He turned to me. “What do you think of the new Italian student?”
“Gabriella or Oriana?”
“Both of them,” Yoshi said.
I shrugged. “Gabriella has that dancer background, so she’s disciplined, flexible, good core strength. But then she’s slow, the way dancers are. Everything’s a performance and—”
“Oriana has very good spirit,” Yoshi interrupted.
“Did you see last week when she saw a nail sticking up from the floor? She went straight to the office for a hammer and flattened it. Because she is raised European. American but European. They have family values.” He motioned for Billy to bring a round of shots. “Really, you never noticed her feet?”
“I try not to get distracted by the students.”
“The pinky toe has a very small nail. It is very sexy.”
Billy came over with our shots. He placed them on the bar and asked Yoshi to correct his finger lock. “I was trying it on my mom last night and it wasn’t working,” he said.
“Which finger did you use?” I asked.
Yoshi shook his head. “Finger selection is unimportant. Of course, it is easier to pick one of the weaker fingers, but with proper technique all will work. Give me your hand.”
Billy stretched out his palm. A moment later, his face was flat against the bar and he was breathing loudly out of his mouth.
“Always, you must strike a kyusho, a vital point, to attack a joint,” Yoshi said. “Our ki, our energy, flows through these kyusho. They connect the body’s energy system. Every joint is controlled by at least four—many to choose from.”
After Billy staggered away, Yoshi raised his shot glass.
“To your tremendous achievement, Mr. Wallace.”
“Thank you,” I said, though I felt undeserving of the praise. Whatever skills I had developed were insignificant compared to Yoshi’s. I was capable, even proficient, in certain situations, but I lacked the holistic devastation Yoshi routinely demonstrated. Wrists slipped out of my grip. Partners reversed my locks. I muscled through technique that should have been effortless.
“What is very important for you next . . .” Yoshi said, and I nodded eagerly. It was the first time that I had ever been out alone with Yoshi. He had often invited me for a drink after class, but always in a group of students, and we would sit around him while he entertained us with anecdotes about his boyhood training in Japan, rigorous drills in which he was forced to run barefoot in winter around the icy fields until the skin on the soles of his feet tore free. To sit together on our own, side by side, seemed an almost daunting privilege.
“Yes, Sensei?” I prompted.
“Another shot!” He laughed and motioned for Billy to bring us a round.
“But Sensei, doesn’t drinking weaken your kyusho?”
“Well . . . yes.” He picked up the shot glass between his thumb and forefinger and sniffed the contents. “But pleasure is a discipline too.”
The following Saturday morning, Yoshi called. My wife handed me the telephone with her eyes still closed. She rolled over and fell back asleep.
“Sensei?” I whispered, climbing out of bed as quietly as possible.
“Come meet me at the dojo!” Yoshi cried.
“It is part of your training!”
“But Sensei, it’s seven a.m.”
“I am a night bird. I never went to sleep. Bring your car.”
He hung up. I changed into sweatpants and a tee shirt, left my wife a note on the bathroom sink, and swiped the car keys from the self-adhesive hook by the front door. It was a long walk to the outdoor parking garage on Eleventh Avenue, and I had underestimated the cold. A dog walker in a knee-length coat blew onto alternating hands, her breath white in the September morning. Outside an apartment building, I passed a series of soil beds full of purple and black-striped flowers. The blooms looked startled and hunched over, as if interrupted while stepping out of the shower.
When I arrived at the dojo, I found Yoshi asleep on the mats. He wore a baggy, charcoal suit, the sleeves wrinkled from having been rolled up. One of his socks had a hole by the big toe, which I could see because Yoshi had taken off his shoes to use as pillows.
“Sensei, I’m here,” I said and bowed.
“I’m here,” I repeated, louder this time.
“Excellent, excellent.” Yoshi sat up. His eyes were red and irritated. The radiator in the corner of the dojo spit out wet, petulant heat.
“Should I change into my uniform?” I asked.
“No, no,” Yoshi said, rising off the mats. “Do you know New Jersey?”
“I guess so.”
“I am unfamiliar with New Jersey. It is better if you drive.” He stumbled toward the door, carrying his shoes in one hand like a sleepy child dragging her doll.
I had parked the car halfway down the block from the dojo. The lock on the passenger-side door was broken, and while waiting for me to climb in and open his door from the inside, Yoshi leaned his forearm against the roof and rested his head on it. Flecks of gray had begun to sprout in his black hair. Behind him, in the second-story window of an apartment building, pigeons were cooing. I put my shoulder into the door and popped it free.
“Where are we going in New Jersey, Sensei? Is there a kyusho seminar?” I asked hopefully, while we idled at a stoplight.
“We go to the mall,” Yoshi said.
“The mall? Why?”
“The heart wants what it wants,” he said and passed out.
I took a roundabout route to the Lincoln Tunnel, wandering through the red and yellow awning-filled labyrinth of Chinatown, up through Little Italy, and all the way over to the Meatpacking District, passing the French brasserie where I had taken my parents out to dinner on their first and only visit to the city. My father instantly disliked New York; he found it noisy and congested, and insisted it smelled of sewage. My mother, out of loyalty to my father or perhaps out of agreement, remained silent. I got angry at my father for his criticism and his reluctance; I felt that his disapproval of the city that I had fallen in love with was, through a commutative property to which sons are particularly receptive, a disapproval of me. I even snapped at him for picking at his meal, calling his conservative tastes childish. Had I known then that my father was already dying, that his mild appetite and the dull intermittent ache in his stomach and lower back were the result of metastasizing pancreatic cells, I might have kept quiet. None of us knew, however, what was coming. We couldn’t anticipate the next five years with their radiant pain.
Yoshi slept fitfully while I sped southward along the New Jersey Turnpike. I don’t suppose it’s fair to expect grace from someone asleep, but it bothered me to watch him fidget, and after a while I turned on the radio to distract myself.
“Blondie. I love her voice,” Yoshi said, stirring in the passenger seat.
“Sensei, how much farther until we get there?”
“This song reminds me of high school. The good old days. Smoking pot.” He chuckled and slapped my shoulder, the impact of the blade of his hand against my body sending us halfway into the passing lane. I jerked the wheel and we swerved back. “Let’s see,” Yoshi said and pulled a cocktail napkin out of his pocket. He unfolded it, squinted, and then flipped the napkin upside down. “Can you read this?”
I took it from him. “We passed this exit five miles ago.”
“Good, then we’re almost there.” He flipped down the sun visor to check himself out in the compact mirror. “It is a good thing Oriana likes long hair. I need a haircut very much.”
“Is that who you went out with last night?”
“Of course not.” He snapped the mirror shut. “I went out with Gabriella. Aerosmith!” he said, and spun the volume dial. “Even their later material is catchy. Aerosmith has a tremendous longevity. As a band, they are very reinventive.”
“I don’t understand. You went out with Gabriella? I thought you were interested in Oriana.”
“It is always wise to befriend a woman’s friend. A woman’s heart, and not just her body, has kyusho.” He slid his crumpled tie free of his collar and began to retie it.
A few minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot and entered the mall. It didn’t take us long to find Oriana. She was easy to spot. Oriana’s job was to stand just inside the entrance of the NordicTrack store and demonstrate how to use their exercise machine. She wore a black leotard, a black tank top emblazoned with the store’s logo, and sneakers so big and white and clean that it looked as if she had just stepped out of a snowbank in Aspen. She moved precisely but happily on the machine, her blond ponytail bouncing above her shoulders. A queasy cross between jazz and flamenco music accompanied her efforts.
Yoshi asked me to keep an eye on Oriana while he visited the bookstore on the second floor. “Do not let her see you,” he instructed.
I leaned against the mall’s information board and watched Oriana from a distance. Many of my friends were getting engaged, my wife and I had just had our wedding in June, so I was becoming increasingly familiar with the difficulty of understanding another person’s romantic enthrallment. And while Oriana was hardly an inscrutable object of desire—she was attractive in the way that any blonde in her early twenties with healthy skin and an athletic body can be—I’ll admit I expected something more from Yoshi, a hunger for exoticism and sophistication. The most exotic thing about Oriana was her slightly upturned nose of questionable authenticity.
Yoshi returned with a slim brown bag and motioned for me to follow him into the store.
“Miss Odenna,” he said, nudging past a woman pushing a twin stroller.
“What a coincidence,” Yoshi said. “I am just doing some weekend shopping with Mr. Wallace. You remember Mr. Wallace from the dojo? He is an assistant instructor now.”
I glanced in the mirror that should have been projecting Oriana’s taut figure across the store but instead reflected Yoshi in his rumpled baggy suit and me beside him, swaddled in sweatpants and a workout shirt.
“Wow,” Oriana said. “You guys look different out of, you know, class.”
“You too,” I said.
“They make me wear this. It’s like a uniform.”
“Black is very sophisticated,” Yoshi said. “Is this a difficult job?”
“Not really. The commute’s the hardest part. My roommate moved out and she was the one with a car, so now I take a bus from Port Authority and it’s about an hour and a half each way. What are you guys shopping for?”
“I am buying Mr. Wallace a book,” Yoshi said. “To provide him spiritual guidance. It is easy to improve the body, but the spirit is much more difficult.”
“Cool,” Oriana said.
Yoshi opened the brown bag and extracted a thin black paperback entitled Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment,” Yoshi read aloud. “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” Yoshi closed the book. “These are very inspiring words. When do you eat lunch?”
“I usually just get a salad. I don’t know. Around one?”
“You must have lunch with us.”
“Oh wow. Really?”
“I insist. Live true to the single purpose of the moment.”
“I don’t know if I can take a half hour. They’re super strict. I’m not even supposed to talk to people.”
“I will take care of it,” Yoshi said.
“Wow. Thanks, um, Sensei.” Oriana’s smile was toothy and girlish, rapturous and a bit clumsy, the kind you see young women direct at their undeserving boyfriends.
“Do you like gyros?” Yoshi asked Oriana and handed off the book to me. I took it without thinking, distracted by the sense that something was wrong—something besides my having ended up in a mall in New Jersey, or Yoshi’s successful wooing of Oriana with nothing more than a Japanese paraphrase of carpe diem. Then I realized: Oriana had stopped moving. She was standing still, one foot a half stride ahead of the other, her hands folded atop the plastic and metal control panel.
I wasn’t the only one to notice.
“Everything okay over here?” asked a man in khaki pants and a black polo shirt, marching over to us. He was broad shouldered and thick, with a fat, ex-college football player’s build. Monogrammed on the pocket of his shirt was the store’s insignia and, above it, the word manager.
“Sorry. We were just talking for a second,” Oriana said quickly.
“Do you have questions about the machine?” His face was soft and a little sweaty. It looked like if you stuck your finger in his cheek, the indentation would stay.
“Miss Odenna is a marvelous representative,” Yoshi said. “She deserves a half-hour break with us as a reward.”
I had once heard that only seven percent of communication was verbal, and that the remainder consisted of body language and facial expressions. Confronted by Oriana’s glowering manager, for the first time I was obliged to consider this statement as more than an inflated statistic.
“Get back to riding the machine,” he said.
With an anxious glance over her shoulder at us, Oriana resumed her pacing.
“Excuse me,” Yoshi said, “you may not talk to Miss Odenna in this way.”
The manager ran his tongue over his front teeth. He might have been irritated or he might have been bored. He certainly wasn’t intimidated. “Why don’t you two go somewhere else to pick up girls? Try Abercrombie and Fitch. There’s a cute Chinese girl that works one of the registers.” Finished with us, he turned to Oriana. “A little slower, honey. You can’t sell this thing if you look like a hamster.”
“I have not completed speaking with Miss Odenna,” Yoshi said.
“Yeah, you have,” the manager said.
“Excuse me, there is a misunderstanding. We have not been introduced: I am Yoshi Takamata. I am Miss Odenna’s master.” Yoshi extended his hand to shake. His disquieting, serene half smile had returned. The manager stared down at him with apparent bewilderment. Then, reflexively, he took Yoshi’s outstretched hand. He would have been safer lowering his hand into a pot of boiling water.
After security released Yoshi, the three of us drove back to the city. Yoshi sat in the back seat to comfort Oriana, reading aloud from The Book of the Samurai to her. Oriana listened without reply, like a child being sung a lullaby. “For a samurai,” Yoshi recited, “a single word is important no matter where he may be. By just one single word martial valor can be made apparent. In peaceful times words show one’s bravery. In troubled times, too, one knows that by a single word his strength or cowardice can be seen. This single word is the flower of one’s heart. It is not something said simply with one’s mouth.”
The changes at the dojo began soon afterward. A potted ficus plant appeared on the windowsill of Yoshi’s office. Pine-tree-scented air fresheners hung in the locker room. The floors were swept, the mouse holes plastered over, and the mats mopped. Along with the addition of a miniature refrigerator and a cube-shaped portable speaker, these renovations were discreet and welcome, and at first I took them as indicators of a blossoming in Yoshi’s life, as he courted Oriana in every venue that he could.
A few weeks after they had become a couple, Yoshi confessed the news to me in his office, though he needn’t have bothered. He was in his early forties, and the pace of dating a girl in her early twenties was taking an obvious toll on him. His eyes were puffy with sleeplessness. His skin looked waxy. An aged slackness had overtaken his handsome, once-boyish face.
Gradually, he stopped teaching many of the classes. Oriana was now working as a cocktail waitress, a job Yoshi had secured for her through a former student who managed a Midtown nightclub, but he liked to be there at the start of her shifts, and since her hours were unpredictable and her schedule likely to change without warning, he often abandoned his teaching duties at the last minute. Naturally, this wasn’t how Yoshi described it when he called in a panic half an hour before class, begging me to take over for him. Instead he invented emergencies, repetitive lies about late-running meetings and sudden dinners with clients—besides owning the dojo, Yoshi claimed to help at his father’s insurance business—lies that would be forgotten hours later when my phone lit up with a midnight call from Yoshi, who was now at home, waiting for Oriana to get off work. I could hear the television babbling and the metallic click of a bottle opener. “She is so shy. She is an angel,” Yoshi would tell me.
From the contact I’d had with Oriana, I didn’t think she was an angel. She was shy, that was true, but she was also vain, and when people paid attention to her, the shyness vanished, and in its place came a brassiness that could easily be misinterpreted as something more inviting. While Yoshi was aware of the agitating effect Oriana could have on men, it didn’t mean that he endured it with any grace. When they went out at night, he glared at men who eyed Oriana and threatened the intrepid ones who dared speak to her. Luckily, most of the bartenders knew Yoshi and prevented any real confrontations—except for one instance when Yoshi squeezed an overly solicitous man’s jaw and brought him to the ground in flustered, agonized tears.
Oriana had asked him to keep their relationship secret from the other students. Consequently, Yoshi was careful not to favor Oriana in class and avoided eye contact with her if she asked a question. Yet his fascination was impossible to wholly conceal. He grinned whenever he spoke her name. He answered her too quickly, repeating himself and gesturing wildly. There were moments when I felt that everyone could sense his enchantment, that it was noisy, incandescent, flagrant—as love, perhaps, should be. One night I caught him staring through the rear window of his office, a diamond shaped sliver of glass that looked out onto a corner of the dojo. When I reminded him that we had been waiting ten minutes for him to begin class, he whispered, “Mr. Wallace, you must come see this.”
I closed the office door and came up beside him. He gestured to where Oriana stood with her back to us. Her long blond hair was piled on top of her head and speared through with a chopstick. Inside her bulky white cotton uniform, she was winsomely petite, her neck as thin as a dandelion stalk. She reached high with her right arm and let her left arm slacken at her side. Slowly, tantalizingly, she stretched the tiny intercostal muscles running between each rib and the lean latissimus muscles of her lower back. She had been in the office plenty of times and knew precisely where the window was positioned.
Yoshi shifted in place, continuing to observe her. I could see the reflection of his eyes in the glass, and for a moment, I had the disconcerting sensation that I was once again in my parents’ boxy old Volvo, looking up at the slashed reflection of my father’s face. As the youngest of three, I sat in the small middle seat while my brothers sandwiched me, my arms pinned, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but stare ahead, either at the unspooling road or up into the rearview mirror. The angle of the mirror created a spooky superimposition, projecting my father’s mouth onto his forehead, so that he looked like a Greek titan, ready to consume us.
It was strange to think of him like that now—my most recent and final memories of him were of a shrinking old man in a hospital bed, weak and pale, as bitter as an almond. That there had been a time when he was all powerful was almost unimaginable to me.
After class that night, when Yoshi announced that we were having a holiday party, I should have realized how far gone he was. Food, drink, even excessive conversation was forbidden in the sacred space of the dojo, where one forges one’s soul through strict discipline. Yoshi kicked open the miniature refrigerator and pulled out two six packs, then told the candy distributor to run to the corner deli for beer. The windows that could open were opened. The radio was switched on to a classic rock station. Oriana came out of the dressing room, carrying a bag of votive candles under her arm and, without any warning, flipped off the overhead lights. Darkness stretched across the room. Then she lit a candle and placed it on the wooden floor, and lit another and another, each white circle spreading its new, urgent luminescence.
It was the time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when a night in the city often becomes a matter of celebration, despite the unpleasant personal and professional facts of one’s life. In those busy weeks, dozens of parties are attended, most of them happily—evidence of what might just be the enduring resoluteness of life, which doesn’t care much for facts. And the forty students who milled around the dojo that night did seem genuinely cheerful as they drank beer and talked about their lovers, spouses and children—those essentials we ignore every night while we strive to inflict agonizing pain with ever greater ease—but I was gloomy and worried. I felt edgy, tethered to something I could neither recognize nor, accordingly, protect myself from.
After a while, I snuck into Yoshi’s office. It was quieter in there, the radio muffled by the heavy wooden door, and much darker. The only light came through the small diamond-shaped window, and this light was a diminishment, the faint glimmer of distant candles. Holding my hands out in front of me, I navigated around the sharp edges of the desk and sat down behind it. It was uncomfortable on the floor, but it would have been disrespectful to sit in Yoshi’s seat. I crossed my legs and shut my eyes, assuring myself that I was meditating, though really I was drunk and sleepy.
The creak of the door jarred me awake. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. I blinked in anticipation of brightness, but the light stayed off. Then the door clicked shut and two black shapes tiptoed across the office. The smaller shape approached the file cabinet and removed a bottle from the top drawer. It was the scotch that, I thought, Yoshi had told no one else about except for me. The bigger shape sat on the edge of the desk. He had his back to me, but I recognized Billy’s shaved head.
“Did you bring cups?” whispered the smaller shape as she handed over the bottle. It was Oriana’s voice.
“You don’t drink Glenlivet from a cup,” Billy replied. Oriana giggled and rubbed Billy’s shoulder. She ran a hand along his developed triceps and cupped his elbow, pulling him close to her.
I stood and turned on the green banker’s desk lamp.
“Mr. Wallace!” Oriana said, jerking away from Billy. “Jesus, you scared me!”
“We were just getting something for Master Takamata,” Billy said.
“But we couldn’t find—” Oriana said.
“We need real glasses,” Billy explained. “Then we were going to bring it out to him.”
“I’ll bring it,” I told Billy. “Why don’t you go? Oriana, stay for a minute.”
Billy hurried out of the office. Oriana sat down in Yoshi’s chair and crossed her legs. She pursed her lips into a small pout. There was something charming even in her sullenness, and I suspected she knew it. “What?” she said. It was an old story, maybe the oldest, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
“Don’t hurt him,” I said.
Yoshi pushed open the door with a grin. He had decided to grow his hair long, but instead of a masculine wave, it puffed out like a hedgehog’s back. When he saw the bottle in my hand, he swatted my shoulder with affection. A nerve near my scapula went numb.
“Mr. Wallace, you have been hiding very unseasonally. But you are forgiven because you found my special treat.”
Yoshi took the bottle from me. He filled three cups and gestured for us to raise them in a toast.
“To the flower of my heart,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, my wife told me that she was pregnant, and a week after the new year, I stopped training with Yoshi. I explained that with a baby coming, I couldn’t risk an injury that might put me out of work. He accepted my excuse with regret but didn’t try to change my mind. Perhaps he worried that there was something else to my sudden resignation, some behavior for which he was responsible and that he didn’t want to confront.
I was surprised by how little I missed the dojo. My wife encouraged me to continue my training, concerned that I was abandoning my only outside interest. Like my father, I had no hobbies, and when the illness overtook him, he’d had nowhere to go for diversion.
“I’m not like my father,” I told her.
“I didn’t say you were. Just that . . . people need something else.”
“I don’t need it anymore,” I told her.
“But you like it.”
I wondered if I did. When I was nine years old, desperate to impress my older brothers, and exchanging the first and most valuable currency of boys, which is bravery, I had jumped off our roof. When our father heard me crying, he came outside to the backyard and, shaking his head, told me to get into the car so he could take me to the hospital. “I can’t walk,” I’d cried, crumpled on the grass. My brothers came over to help me up, but our father waved them away. “He does it himself or he doesn’t go.” It took ten minutes for me to drag myself across the yard and to the car, and another five to settle into the back seat, wincing as I struggled to position my leg in a way that didn’t make me want to scream. When I was done, my father climbed behind the steering wheel and lit a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder at me, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “If you’re going to be stupid, you’d better learn to be tough.”
But training with Yoshi hadn’t taught me anything about being tough. And perfecting the painful manipulation of a stranger’s kyusho now seemed equally senseless. Whatever minor skill I had gained only rendered me more aware of how vulnerable we are. It was an impossible task. There was no training, no expertise, no level of mastery that could ever truly protect us.
I saw Yoshi one more time, at the end of February. He had been locked out of his apartment and called to ask if I would come downtown and give him my keys to the dojo, which I had forgotten to return.
“It’s almost four in the morning. Why don’t you just take a cab up here and sleep on our couch?” I offered.
“I must get into the dojo.”
“I’ll pay for the cab.”
“My keys,” he repeated. “Please.”
I put on a sweater and a pair of jeans and thick black boots. Softly I kissed my wife’s warm cheek. Her forehead was damp with sweat and her lips chapped. She often woke in the middle of the night and had trouble falling back asleep, but that night her breathing was heavy and deep. She was growing, changing, becoming. It was a strange new process, tasked with its own variety of pain, and I kissed her again, full of gratitude. Then I found the keys and hailed a cab to help my old master.
Yoshi was waiting for me in the Irish pub. It closed at four, but the bartender, a heavyset man in his fifties, had let him stay inside until I arrived. Yoshi sat slumped in a booth in the corner. His eyes were gray and unfocused. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, maybe a week, and a wispy mustache was sprouting above his lip, giving him the appearance of a catfish.
“Master Takamata,” I said.
“Excellent, excellent.” He waved to the bartender. “A great student!”
The bartender handed me Yoshi’s tab. I paid it and we left.
Outside, Yoshi paused at the curb of the sidewalk. The cold night air seemed to have roused him, and he began to bob his head slightly, as if he were a boxer weaving in a fight. “The night is still young, Mr. Wallace. I know a Japanese bar . . . very high profile. I introduce you to a Japanese girl.” He took an accidental step off the sidewalk, flinging his arms wide to reassert his balance. “Japanese girls—very loose. They pretend the opposite, but they are island girls. A history of many sailors.”
“I brought your keys,” I said and led him across the street.
He labored up the two flights of stairs to the dojo, and then I unlocked the door for him. The air smelled dusty. Plaster littered the edges of the floor where the mouse holes had been chewed back open. I switched on the light but Yoshi switched it off.
As I kneeled in the doorway to untie the laces of my boots, Yoshi pushed past me and lay down on the mats. He stared at the ceiling, stained with years of water damage.
“Oriana is gone,” he said.
“She leaves me for her yoga teacher.” He kicked off one shoe and tried to pry free the other but couldn’t do it. I walked over and unlaced it for him. Then I placed both his shoes alongside the edge of the mat.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Are you going to sleep here?”
“I don’t need to sleep. I am a night bird.”
“Do you think she loved me?”
“Why don’t you try and get some rest?” I said.
“Did she?” Yoshi sat up, leaning on his elbow to face me. “Tell me the truth.”
I hesitated. I thought about the icy fields of Yoshi’s youth, the skin tearing from his feet as he chased after bravery and strength.
“No,” I said.
He smiled. It was the smile that I had so often confused with serenity, but which was only familiarity, a muted recognition of the transference of pain. Yoshi closed his eyes. I placed his jacket over his shoulders, left the keys beside the door, and went home to my beautiful wife.
Panio Gianopoulos, “The Flower of one’s Heart” from How to Get into Our House and Where We Keep the Money. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books.
Ben was my summer boyfriend, my “older man,” Mom called him. He was twelve, and I was eleven, a skinny eleven, though I believed my breasts appeared acceptable to those who mattered. He lived usually with his mother in Florida. He had a beautiful red face with a scar outlining his jaw from once playing basketball and diving into the pavement. He was known as a diver, though he didn’t swim. He even refused to stick his ankles in the baby pool my parents packed with beer and Coke for their parties.
The first Monday of summer, Mom stayed home from work. She had me on trial. Would she have to take a leave or could she trust me alone? No money for a sitter. In our neighborhood, kids ran around like abandoned animals, but we knew to be civilized when we had to.
I made lunch in the microwave, not the stove, which Dad said had the potential to explode when used by small hands. Cheese warmed between two slices of bread. I ate in the living room, reading about different breeds of cats and humming. Multi-tasking. Mom had the television on in the basement. She already pounded up the stairs once to check on me. She was having fun, pretending to care.
After lunch, Ben turned up outside the picture window carrying some pillowcases. With my hand on the doorframe, I swung toward him and we kissed for the first time in nine months.
“You smell like cheese.” He gave me a pillowcase, which was smooth and fancy. “I need to borrow your backyard.”
At the top of the staircase, I yelled to my mother, “I’m heading to be responsible out back.”
“I’ll be watching,” she called.
Ben went toward the pine trees, where so many years’ worth of needles covered the ground. He dropped to his knees and shoveled piles of them into his pillowcase. He said his dad had a new girlfriend who carried a tape measure in her purse. “At breakfast she measured my height.”
“How tall are you?” I asked. Some kids in the neighborhood called him a shorty. Whenever I brought him up they said, “That shorty?” though never to his face.
“The girlfriend asked if I knew you. She called you ‘That silly girl who ties something around her chest.’ She said that’s not what breasts are supposed to look like.”
“As if she knows.” I sat cross-legged in the needles and sorted out the sharpest. They were increasingly snappy the further down the pile. “Breasts don’t all look the same.”
“They had a conversation about it.” Ben filled another pillowcase. “Dad called your breasts ‘hypothetical.’ Or, I don’t know, ‘parenthetical.’ ”
“Your house is a house of hysterics.”
Mom came outside with a watering can. She watered the yellowed weeds near the back porch, watching us. Ben waved and smiled at her, and she took it as an invitation.
“I wondered when someone would have the initiative.” She nodded at the stuffed pillowcases. “Garbage bags would hold more.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ben said. “It so happens I have a need for needles just as you have a need to be rid o’ them.”
She gave me a look like we were weird. I groaned as she went for the bags. “I’m officially on the chain gang.”
“What’s wrong with her wrist?” he asked.
“Don’t look at my mother.”
“It’s the color my chin turned a few days after I messed it up.”
I took a handful of pine needles. “You’re a crappy boyfriend.”
He took my hand and brushed away the needles. He had a crazy eye that twitched occasionally. “You’re a good kid.” He kissed me quick on the cheek, watching the backdoor.
With trash bags of pine needles, I followed Ben across the street. The needles pricked through my shirt, but I didn’t complain. Up a narrow stairwell and down a short stuffy hall, I wondered which room was his and what it would be like to follow him in and close the door behind us.
Instead, I watched him empty four bags of needles onto his father’s sheets. We smoothed the comforter over top so no one could tell what was beneath, and he showed me three small holes in the comforter.
“You notice things better left unnoticed,” I said.
We heard the front door open, and my mother, “Mary, you shouldn’t be here!”
“Come to the park,” I told Ben. “Everyone’s there.”
“That doesn’t excite me.” He fluffed one of the pine-needled pillows. The bed was prickly and splotched. “Have fun with your ugly friends.”
Instead, I went home with Mom, my wrists crossed behind my back like they’d been handcuffed. “You know how to be nice, young lady,” she said. Boys’ homes were enemy territory.
I sprawled on the living room carpet until almost dinner. Dad’s car pulled into the drive. “There’s a gorgeous girl on my floor!” The screen door snapped behind him. He took off his shoes. “How’s my doll?”
“Tired and dirty.” I turned away from him, toward the kitchen. Mom was making sloppy joes.
“Your mother still mad at me?
I didn’t answer. He tiptoed over me, though there was room to go around.
“Let me see it,” I heard him say. I closed my eyes. All afternoon, Ben hadn’t kissed me. There was a bed. There was his anger. I imagined how it would feel, climbing into a soft space and getting pricked with a thousand needles. It was almost my turn.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place.
My cat is in the driveway, gnawing on fine bones. The rain has begun: a warm muzzled sound, large soft drips, not the rapid dark downpour of yesterday. Everything wet and green, sopping, soaking.
My cat comes in, sits on the desk where I write. His paw leaves a pale red print on the page. He wants to be scratched behind the ears, he splays himself belly up for extra attention. He thinks he lives a fine life and he does. Inside he is petted and catered to; outside he lives the secret life of a hunter.
Meat Eaters and Plant Eaters: my son has divided his dinosaurs into two collections, counts how many he has in each. Plant eaters are more pot-bellied we learn: huge stomachs to process all that scruffy plant material.
Meat Eaters are leaner, tougher, their bodies efficient hunting machines. My son likes the meat eaters best: their jagged teeth, fierce open jaws, arms outstretched for prey. He prefers predators to prey, words he’s recently learned.
But in the morning: “Mom? What is that? What did I step on?”
And I clean his bare foot and the rug, now blood-stained, of the gizzards our cat left behind during the night. My son stares at what I flush away. “Was it a mouse?” “Yes, I think so.”
It’s summer and the dead things are multiplying: mice, a chipmunk, and if we are very unlucky: a small bird, its downy feathers floating in the house for days, like milkweed seeds come to rest.
The cat has retired to the closet, kneads a sweater that’s fallen over the tips of shoes. The pawing sets him purring, and soon he is curled into himself to sleep away the day.
“Are we going to die?” We are brushing our teeth, a ritual my son performs reluctantly, especially in the morning. “Are we going to die?” he asks again.
“Yes, but . . . not for a long long long time, not for maybe 100 years . . .”
“NO! We’re not, we’re never going to die.”
Silence—we’re both thinking—and then the question again: “Are we going to die?”
I hesitate—he’s only five. “Yes, but . . .”
“NO!” and he pounds on my chest. What he doesn’t like he tries to pound right out of me. I know I need to talk to him about not hitting when he’s mad, but for now I take the pounds. I go soft, evasive. “Maybe we won’t die . . .” He must know I’m just saying that because he wants me to, I rationalize.
“Never. We’re never going to die.”
“Maybe . . .”
“Maybe means no. We’re not going to die.”
And that decides it. For now anyway. He’s off to his bedroom, where his dinosaurs are. Craaak! I hear them crashing into one another, the Tyrannosaurus charging the Triceratops, but the Triceratops has horns and a thick skin, he may be able to get away alive. The swift meat eater catches him by the back leg, his teeth sink in; he bites a huge chunk of Triceratops; the poor plant eater will slowly die.
“I’m just going to drink water,” my son tells me over lunch.
“And why is that?”
“Because if you drink water, you won’t die.”
I nod, wondering how he’s reached this conclusion,
then remember a book we read recently about the human body: we can live for so many days without food, but without water, we die. I pour another glass for him, glad that he prefers water to soda, at least for now.
From my window I catch sight of the cat outside. I watch him circle something in the tall grass. Quietly he paces, his circle tightening, closing in, and then quite suddenly he leaps, back arched. He’s got something— though I can’t see what—between his paws.
We find the something on the bathroom floor—this time abandoned, not eaten or opened, not even a bloody scar: a tiny brown field mouse, its tail a long wire. My son stares at it, watches as I gather it in a paper towel. “Is it alive? Are you going to let it go outside?” I nod, though I’m unsure whether it’s dead or just stunned. I take the small bundle downstairs to thrust out the back door under the bushes outside.
“Did it get away?” my son asks.
I tell him that it did, though I didn’t really see.
“Big plant-eating dinosaurs gulped down stones as they ate. The stones stayed in the gut, helping the stomach muscles grind leaves and twigs into a soft sticky stew of plants. Dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus, could digest this stew more easily,” I read from the thick book we got from the library, All About Dinosaurs.
“Apatosaurus used to be Brontosaurus. Read about the meat eaters now, Mom.”
“Allosaurus had large eyes, nearly twice the size of those of the much bigger meat eater, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Above the eyes was a bony flap forming an eye ridge, possible to shade its eyes from the sun. Allosaurus had about 40 teeth in its upper jaw and 32 in its lower jaw. They were up to four inches long and their front and back edges were sharp and serrated, like steak knives, for slicing through flesh. As they wore out or broke, new teeth grew in their place . . .” I read on. The words do not seem to be putting my son to sleep; he’s alert, intent on processing anything new we might learn. Our cat slips into the room through the closet door. He’s found his way in, as he usually does, through the crawl space that leads through the attic, the attached garage, to the outside. He jumps onto the bed where we’re sitting, slinks past us, his fur brushing against us in turn, as he makes his way to the end. He kneads himself a warm spot, and soon he is curled into himself, purring softly. My son likes that his bed has become the cat’s favored resting spot.
“Shut the door Mom,” he tells me as soon as I close the book.
I do, and from the other side I hear him slip out of the bed I’ve tucked him into, slam the closet door closed, then slip back in between covers. Now the cat is trapped in the room—no secret passageway to the nightworld outside. Most likely he hasn’t realized this yet. I wonder how long he’ll indulge my son, tolerate his constant stroking. For now they lie, two warm bodies fitted into one another: one purring, one stroking, soon twitching and dreaming.
*Jessica Treat, “Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters” from Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Way over there, the boy could see them, in the deep end, his mother and the man his mother said he’d better stop calling Dan Dog. They were all the way over there, doing what his mother told him was the dead man’s float. He could do it too, she said, no reason in the world, she said, no reason not to just swim over to the deep end and float.
“Try that I can’t swim,” he’d said to his mother as she bobbed
“Well, palley-walley, it’s you who’s making the big mistake,” she said before she rolled over and spread out her arms.
He could see them in their sprawl, Dan Dog’s legs sunk down
in the water, the straps of his mother’s swimsuit in a drifty signature around her.
When he saw the man lift his face up, he shouted, “Hey Dan Dog, fetch this.” The man took a closed-eyed breath and lay his billowed face back down in the water.
The boy stood on the pool steps and opened his arms. He wore wings, blown-up, electric-orange wings, bunched on his arms.
“Here I go,” he shouted.
He leaped. He bounced on his tiptoes till he came to the place where the bottom sloped steeply. It had a pull, he could feel it, the deep end, a suck that the boy knew wanted to get him. He doggie-paddled back to the stairs. Tucking his legs up, he kept himself down in his tuck and squatted his way up to the top step.
The man rolled on his back, his feet pointing straight up, the way the boy had seen a man float on a morning cartoon.
“Dan Dog,” he shouted, singsong. “Roll over, Dan Dog.”
His mother lifted her face for air, squinching open her eyes, then she dove under in a clean pike. The boy could see her below water arranging her swimsuit and he guessed she would break surface just where she broke the surface, squeezing herself up in a rush through the man’s legs.
“Hey!” said the man. “What the fuck?”
His mother downed the man in a swift dunk.
“You didn’t hear that, did you?” she called over to the boy. “Come on,” she said. “Am I ever going to see you swim or what?”
The boy saw a pawed hand come out of the water and pull his mother under in a quick yank. She popped up, blowing water in a snorty laugh. The man popped up beside his mother, whipping her swimsuit top in a skim on the water, and the boy heard him bark into her hair, “I’m going to get you bad.”
“Look at me, Dan Dog!” the boy shouted from the top step, where he stood making half flaps with his winged arms.
“Look, pal,” said his mother, flattening out on her back, “what did we say about that?” She sculled in place and then did a little watery arabesque, her body folding and sinking slightly. “I haven’t done all this in I don’t know how many years,” she said, coming back up, her shut face, the boy could see, cresting just on top of the water.
“If you throw a brand-new baby in water, it will swim,” said the man. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, we’re practically fish for Christ’s sake,” he said and tossed the strappy swim top out onto the pool deck.
“I’m not a fish, Dan Dog. Do I look like a fish?” said the boy.
The mother said, “I’ve got you, really,” and pushed off against the side of the pool. “Trust me,” she said, stretching her arms out above her head. “See, the water holds you up.”
“I’m not a fish,” insisted the boy.
He pulled and the nylon squeaked, stuck and sticking against the boy’s wet skin before the wings came off.
They could just forget about his going in, but the boy knew they were not forgetting—the way they kept lifting their faces, calling to him to join them in the dead man’s float. He would—no matter what they said to him—just not go in.
“Fine,” said his mother, “be that way.”
The boy was out again, doing his tiptoed best.
Whatever they said, his mother and the man, Dan Dog, the boy could feel the drain’s pull. Even back here, on the shallow steps where he’d crab walked himself over to, there was the drain’s suck, sucking him over to the deep end, where his mother hung on Dan Dog’s back while Dan Dog did pull-ups on the diving board.
Really, it was proof, wasn’t it? His furred neck, and the way he shook himself off, water spraying out just like water shook from a dog, wasn’t that proof, really?
“I used to do a hundred,” the man said, yanking himself up in what looked to the boy to be a motion from the same cartoon where the big bad guy had the little woman and she was holding on for her dear, good life.
His mother squealed.
“Twenty-five, twenty-six,” the man yanked, “twenty-seven, twenty-fuck, twenty-shit, oh shit!” he said, letting go, and the boy watched the joined splash of his mother and the man and the sink and sunk shape of them still joined, over in the deep end.
“Oh, Dan Dog,” he called. “Ruff, ruff, Dan Dog.” The man was facedown in his dead man’s float. His mother was floating on her back, her hands cupped and sculling close to her side. If they were dead men and dogs in the deep end, the boy wondered what that made him over in the shallow end.
“Check this out,” he called, flapping his wingless arms. Then he dropped his arms and called out, “You know, I’m a human, too.”
“Make me do things,” said his mother.
The boy sat on the steps.
“Say anything and I’ll do it—it’ll be fun,” the mother said. She was treading water.
The boy said, “Okay, be Mom.”
The mother splashed over. “You know, you’re a real pill. Come on, can we have a little fun or what? Please, just give me a thrill, just say, ‘do a crab’ or say, ‘do the bunny breaststroke.’ It will be fun, really. Okay? Please.” His mother stretched out flat on her back and did a flutter kick over to where the man floated.
The boy said, “Okay, fine, be the ocean,” but his mother had already rolled over into her dead man’s float.
It seemed to the boy that they were hardly coming up for air—Dan Dog’s back looked swollen and pink, his mother strapless and drifting slightly under—neither raising for full enough breaths and neither lift¬ing, now, very much at all.
The boy called, “I say be an octopus,” and when his mother did not stir, he said, “I’m playing. Okay, Mom, I’m playing now.”
The boy walked around the edge of the pool, his bare feet pumiced by the cement. It felt good to the boy to be over here by the deep end of the pool and safe too, looking out there back to the shallow end. He saw one wing floating, orange and puffed, by the steps. The other he could not find, till he found it shored, electric, under the man’s arm, black hair seaweeded thickly over it.
His mother floated right in front of him. He thought that if he just leaned over he could touch her; for good luck he might just give her a little touch; he might touch the clean, white stripe of skin on her back for extra good luck. He did it and she startled, roiled, rolling over with her legs kicking and her arms grabbing up, raising herself as his mother would in alarm. The boy was holding on to something hard of her.
“Oh, it’s you,” he heard her say. Then he felt the seizing under-tow and knew that about his position in the animal kingdom he had been right.
*Victoria Redel, “Make Me Do Things” from Make Me Do Things. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
It is past midnight and Janet is up in the oak tree. She is the bird with black feathers. When she twitches her head the tips of her black feathered braids just brush the tips of her small breasts, just lightly, just so. Her flowered blouse hangs from a nearby branch. She does not need it. She is the black bird that drops feathers like leaves. Bark cuts her knees; she can see the blood, dark in the light of the moon. Down in the garden below her, in the tomato patch, the Parrish boy barks quietly over her sighing sister Tasha. Tasha does not need her blouse either, nor anything else. The Parrish boy’s buttocks roll above her. Pulped vegetables shine in their hair. The garden stretches out around them, a full wet acre behind the house.
Their father in his gorilla suit crouches in the middle of the corn rows, maybe forty yards from their sister Tasha and the Parrish boy. Her father’s fur gleams in the moonlight. He cocks his head, listening. His dark eyes roll up towards the sky, but he does not seem to see Janet up in the tree. He sways to his feet. He moves uncertainly towards the sound of their coupling. The corn obscures his vision. They roll like seals in the crushed tomatoes.
She can see what will unfold. She wraps one arm fiercely around the trunk of the oak tree. She plucks at her shorts where they cut into her thighs. A light breeze blows up the ridges of her spine. Black leaves fall like hail.
This is not a dream. This is the dreaming half of her family, out in the garden, by moonlight.
The father wears the gorilla suit because of a lump in his left testicle. He does not know if the lump is cancerous or not. He does not know what it is. He is deeply afraid of going to the doctor. He thinks the lump will go away. He thinks that if he thinks about it, it will only grow larger. He thinks that as long as nobody knows for sure what it is, it will not be cancerous. He thinks if he tells anyone about it, black cancer will explode into his testicles the moment the words pass his lips. So because of the lump, he will not shower with the other Gorilla-Gram workers at the end of the day. He wears the costume home, driving down I-65 at rush hour in the afternoon heat, the gorilla head in the back seat, his gorilla paws working the brakes, the gas, the brakes: a furry panic of control.
Each day he comes home to what? A drink, of course, and a family that is as quiet as an Ohio sky before a terrible storm. They are waiting him out. Battening the hatches, boarding up the windows to their souls. They know something is wrong; they smell it, the electric charge of worry and sickness bleeding out of his pores. His oldest daughter is sly, secretive. His youngest is pensive, watchful. His twin sons are self-absorbed, lifting weights, drinking high-protein milkshakes, critical eyes attuned to every twitch and ripple of their bodies. His wife was solicitous, then withdrawn. Drinking just that much too much. And he, too: a drink, and then out to the garden to inspect the latest damage. A patch at a time, plants trampled, fruit despoiled, rotting, crushed. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. He vows revenge. One sunless afternoon out in the cucumbers with a whiskey-soda in his hands, he gets the idea. He will use the gorilla suit to scare the hell out of whoever is running riot through his garden. He will dress up in the suit and prowl the garden and when he finds them he will exorcise them. He will reclaim his garden. It is a drunken idea, and it will be another five nights before he is drunk enough to remember it, and act.
In among the cornstalks that whisper like winos he squats, and waits, and itches, and wishes for a drink, and hears something, a murmur, a snide mocking laugh. He rolls to his feet. He lumbers forward, dark and terrible. Whiskey fumes float and shiver in the mask. He looks out at the dark shifting vegetation. He is the gorilla, the avenger, swift and awful.
The garden is thrumming; the gourds, the vines, the leaves, the stalks, the fruit and pulp and silk, all of it thrum, thrum, thrum. She feels it all, yawning and purring out and away from her. She sees the stars above his head, through the thick blurry branches of the oak tree. And then she sees her sister, her braids hanging low, the pale skin of her flesh shimmering in the dark night leaves. For just a second Natasha is shocked and then everything rises above and beneath her and all she hears is the thrumthrumming of the garden and a rustle in the corn. So she smiles up at her little sister Janet and lets her eyes roll back into her head, where she sees nothing but a thin red humming thread waiting to burst into ribbons.
Janet is the blackbird with all of the knowing. She drops her knowing behind her, a trail of black feathers that nobody sees. She is the Not-Beautiful daughter trapped in a forest of mirrors. There is nobody to follow the trail. They will not rescue her. She is the Not-Beautiful daughter and nobody wants to see what she knows.
Natasha is the Beautiful Daughter. Janet knows things about Natasha. She sleeps in the same bedroom with Natasha: she knows. At night, as soon as Janet pretends to sleep, Natasha turns into tongue and teeth, alone but not alone in her bed, her hair swishing and swaying and silver. At night Natasha’s teeth go clicking and her sheets tangle wild about her. Her legs flash white, thrash together and apart, Natasha dreaming her body, the sheets snapping, her hand fluttering against herself, the mutter, the coo, the groan. All of this Janet hears and she knows what it means.
She knows, now, perched above the garden, that the waking half of her family is inside, sleeping with their eyes open. The doors are all closed. The lights are bright. There are no shadows. In her parents’ bedroom she knows her mother is watching television, lying on top of the comforter in her blue silk kimono, the red and gold dragons curling about her heavy breasts. She chain-smokes, the ashtray on her belly. Smoke fills the room. The house rustles. She reaches for the remote control and turns up the volume. For a while the sirens on the television say “. . . this IS your MARriage WINDing DOWN aWAY from YOU. . . .” Listen to anything long enough and it becomes nothing: words become sounds, sounds become vibrations, vibrations are just air molecules stirring and sighing, and anything reduced can eventually be ignored.
Janet knows this is true, though she would not say it that way, if she would say it at all.
She knows that her brothers the twins are lifting weights in the Steroid Room. This is what they call their bedroom. It is a name that started as a joke and now is not. They stand face to face, doing curls, expelling hot sweet breath in each others’ faces. The room is filled with their grunting, the heavy smell of their sweat. There is a full-length mirror behind each of them. Looking over the others’ shoulders they see themselves front and back, a gallery of muscled teenagers straining, glistening. They stop simultaneously, an expulsion of hot breath. They smile shyly at each other.
This is the waking half of her family, lost in themselves, behind doors that click and snap.
Oh now Natasha’s world is ribbons, red ribbons, unfurling, encircling, red, and red, they rise from their spools and entwine and wrap her, ankle to nipple, tangle in her mouth, there is nothing she can’t do, there is nothing but her, and nobody has known this, nobody, nothing, not even the Parrish boy, especially not even him who grunts, grunts, grunts above and beyond her, far away, everything slicks way out unspooling and begins just now to fall. Something outside of her roars. Something outside of her snaps shut. Something is very wrong, swaying overhead, oh.
The corn whispers; his body burns. He will not allow vandals in the whispering corn. He will not allow this to happen in his garden. He has to know: how dark, how it pulses, how it spreads, how fast, how long, how long have you got. You have to know. You have to know this. He bursts through the last row of corn. He sees white figures bleating and writhing in the moonlight. He roars. He pounds his chest. He looks down at them.
He sees the bare breasts of his oldest daughter Natasha rise, fluid. The buttocks of that boy rising too like soft stones in the moonlight. The tangle of their limbs as they leap up, the sweat running down her face. He stands and turns and watches as they dart out through the garden, back through the corn rows, separating, their white flesh like fish bellies swallowed up by darkness. He stands stunned by the enormity of what he’s done. What he’s seen.
Up in the Steroid Room, the twins face each other. Reflections, reflected and refracted. He raises his right hand (and raises his right hand) and reaches (out with it) and touches (his left bicep) still (slick) with (sweat) like (touching himself in the mirror. Who is he? Where does he stop? Something stirs. Something)
screams outside. He hears it and snaps back into they. They both bolt for the door, careful not to look at each other, careful not to brush up against the other, out the door and down the stairs, ready to do anything to forget.
She is almost dozing, the ashtray on her belly aswarm with butts like minnows. Sirens fill the room. She has worked all evening to come to this place: whatever is out there cannot get in. The sirens are other people’s disasters. The man in the ambulance is a waxy little husband doll who can be bent into shape at the end of an hour. Everything disappears in the wash of wee sirens and the small ether of her own cigarettes. This will carry her. This is the murmured no of television and nicotine. This is the lull of watery wine. This is, this is, this is:
this is the shriek of her eldest daughter.
There is then for her a calm moment like ice covering ponds. She puts the ashtray on the nightstand. She knew this would come. She has always known you cannot willfully blind yourself: the act of erasure acknowledges something was there: words, etched by a skateblade on the ice, words that say “sorrow” and “loss” in long looping letters. Then the calm groans, the ice shifts, cracks run like lightning towards the edges of something that used to be her life and she is up, pulling her robe close to her body, the dragons spitting balefully at her breasts, she is up and she is running downstairs.
She is the black crow with all of the knowing and she watches it all.
She sees her father sink to his knees, and take the gorilla head off and throw it back over his shoulder toward the corn rows. It rolls and wobbles and bumps to a stop. Her father sinks back onto his heels. He stares at the clothing scattered around him. He stares at the glistening tomatoes smeared on the dark black soil. He picks up a twisted bra, stares at it blankly, and then, shuddering, flings it from him. He buries his naked face in his bristling paws.
She feels suddenly cold, and naked, and ashamed. She pulls her blouse from the branch and slips it onto her body, buttoning it up carefully, balancing on her knees upon the wide rough limb. Below, her father begins to cry. She has never seen him cry before, and gooseflesh ripples across her body. Before she understands what she’s doing, she swings down off of the limb and grabs the trunk of the tree and slides down it, not at all gracefully, scratching her arms and legs and feet with raw red scrapes that her mother will spread first aid cream on for many nights to come.
On the ground, the smell of raw tomatoes assaults her. She can smell, too, the whiskey and sweat and fur of her father. He slaps his furry thighs with his huge paws over and over again. He kneels in the garden with his bare head looking small and breakable in the harsh light of the moon.
Behind them, up at the house, more lights come on, and she can hear her mother at the patio door, saying, “Jim? Jim? Jim?” over and over again, calling out to them. The twins join their mother, all of them moving out onto the patio. The twins peer out into the darkness, dumb-bells firmly in hand.
She hesitates at the base of the tree, and then she walks over to her father. She stands before him. She smoothes her blouse and clears her throat. He looks up at her. His eyes are swollen walnuts.
“You were there?” her father says.
She nods, mute.
“You saw, then. Why didn’t you stop me?”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why she came down from the tree, either. Gently, she gathers up her sister’s clothes. She stands in front of him. She reaches out a hand. He reaches up a black paw. She gives him a tiny tug that rocks him to his feet. Together, they walk up to the house burning with light, readying themselves.
There is a hole in the heart of the garden, at the center of everything, a perfect exhalation: the -oh- that lies trembling at the heart of the world. It is the oh of realization, the oh of satisfaction, the void that is the self staring back, stripped bare. It is the oh that lies buried in know, and it is the moan that floats after every uttered no.
Some night you will be out walking the dog through the streets of your neighborhood, and the catastrophes that lurk at the center of every life will decide to unfold: night-blooming flowers uncurling in the dark, fists to palms. You will hear the shriek in a neighbor’s back yard and you will see all of the lights go on in the house and you will see white naked bodies darting out from the sides of the house and flashing pure and beautiful beneath the streetlights before they are swallowed up by the darkness of other yards. Your dog will bark, once. You will stand there, waiting. You know exactly what this is. You have seen it all in your mind’s eye a thousand times. If you did not have the dog with you, you might go around the house to the back where voices are raised, truths unsheathed like weapons, unwound like bandages. You might go back there if you could trust the dog not to strain against the leash, or if you hadn’t already seen it yourself, but of course you have seen this, you’ve played every role there is to play, and you cannot trust this dog ever.
You will instead pull the dog back home to your own dark house, to your own sighing secrets, to the—oh—sputtering blue in your own dark basement, to the someone you left sleeping upstairs.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Out of Time
Hugh Furlong tells people that the single, snapshot moment that’s been burned into his brain to mark the end of his childhood was the moment he saw his brother Peter’s fist make contact with Albert Frank’s jaw. The moment he heard that soft thud and then the crack, as if something had been broken that could never be replaced. That moment, he says, meant more to him than when he punched Albert, too. Meant more than the phone call from Mrs. Frank, telling Peter and Hugh’s mom that Albert was in the hospital and guess who had put him there? More than Hugh’s three months in juvie—Peter’s stint was longer, a full year, because he was older and so, they said, should have known better—or the first few days back at school after, when the other kids in second grade and even the teachers all looked at Hugh different, like they didn’t know him anymore.
Hugh tells people that that was the moment, but it isn’t really true. Partly because there can’t just be one moment, can there? One single instant that is the definitive instant that draws the line between boy and man. But mostly because, even if there was a moment like that, for Hugh Furlong it would have happened before that fight. By that moment, by the time Peter’s fist smashed into Albert’s jaw, Hugh the boy was already gone.
During morning recess that day, Peter had told Hugh about the rumor that had been spreading around the school like an infectious disease and which Albert Frank had personally started. Peter had clasped onto Hugh’s elbow and looked him solemnly in the eyes when he told him, and that’s how Hugh knew it was something bad. He didn’t, otherwise, know what the word meant.
“What does it mean?” he asked Peter. “Something to do with eating insects, right?”
“Not exactly,” Peter said, but he apparently didn’t want to elaborate any further.
Hugh hadn’t known at the time about Peter’s dad—about what he had done to Peter when he thought nobody would catch them. If he had known, Hugh probably would have let it drop, but instead he asked Peter, “But it’s a insult, right?”
“Yes,” Peter said. His jaw tensed and his lips grew thin and taught. “It’s meant as an insult. And what are we going to do about it?”
Hugh asked his brother, “What would Pan do?” which was sort of their mantra. Words to live by. Their mom had told them once that if they ever needed help figuring out the right thing to do, they should just ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” When they discussed it later both boys agreed that whatever the answer to the question would be, it wasn’t likely to be very interesting or worth doing. “Besides,” Peter had added, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to follow the footsteps of someone whose choices in life got him put to death by the government. I’m not saying he didn’t do the right things, but I’d rather do things that won’t get me killed, if you want to know the truth.” They decided that a much wiser and more pleasurable course of action would be to figure out what Peter Pan would do and then follow his actions exactly.
Peter Pan was Peter’s favorite book back then, for obvious reasons, and as a result, it was Hugh’s favorite book, too, though Hugh couldn’t actually read it yet, had to have Peter read it aloud to him. Peter said it had been his dad’s favorite book also, and that his dad had named him after Pan, although their mom said it wasn’t true. Said Peter was named after some soap opera star, but Peter didn’t believe it. Deep down inside he knew the truth. He was the boy who would never grow old. All of Hugh and Peter’s games revolved around the Pan characters in some way or another, and their favorite game, Pan and Pirates—their own makeshift version of cowboys and Indians—had even begun to catch on with some of the other kids at school.
“Well,” Peter said, “first of all Pan’d probably ambush Albert or something. And then he’d taunt him and make everyone laugh at him.”
Hugh nodded. “Pan’d probably call on somebody else to help him out.”
“I have an idea,” Peter said, and took off towards the boys’ room.
Hugh chased after him. When he got inside he had to pause, let his eyes adjust to the flickering fluorescent light. “What?” he asked Peter, and then again, “What?”
“Shh,” Peter said, and then walked down the line of stalls, kicking in the doors to make sure nobody else was there. When the last stall proved vacant, he walked back to the front of the bathroom, to the row of sinks and the mirror above them. “I know who we can get to help us.”
“Who?” Hugh asked.
Peter flicked off the lights.
Hugh’s heart began to throb. “Peter, who? I can’t see anything.”
“Give it a second. Your eyes’ll adjust,” Peter said.
And he was right, after a few seconds the grey forms inside the bathroom came into a shadowy focus. There were the stalls, and the mile long, filthy, cloth roll towel, hanging down from its metal container in a loose loop. There were the sinks and counter, and, above them, the mirror. Everything was cast in shades of grey but it was all visible now and that, at least, was something.
Hugh folded his arms. “Okay, but it’s still pretty dark.”
“I know,” Peter said. “But it has to be completely dark or else he won’t come.”
“Who won’t come? Peter, what’s going on?”
“Look into the mirror,” Peter said in a solemn tone.
Hugh did, and a vague version of himself stared back. “Okay.”
“What do you see?”
“I see myself.”
“Really look,” Peter said.
Hugh leaned in further toward the glass and squinted. “I see myself, Peter. Just myself.”
Peter sighed. “I’m going to tell you a story. About the evil pirate in the land of the mirrors.”
“The land of the mirrors.” Hugh had meant it to sound skeptical, but it came out with a touch of awe.
“His name is Angus,” Peter said. “Angus D. Firebelly. The D stands for Devilish. What happened was Angus was doing his thing, you know: raping and pillaging, and cooking and eating small children.”
“And Captain Jaz. Hook, none other, felt threatened, because Angus was a much better pirate than he and it is commonly believed that Angus could have killed Pan like that,” Peter snapped, “if he ever set his mind to it.”
“How come I’ve never heard of him before?” Hugh asked.
“Well he isn’t in the book or anything. J. M. Barrie left that part out because it was too scary.”
“How come you know about him then?”
“Because. I met Angus right here in this very bathroom. He told me his whole story. About how Jaz. and his pirates ambushed him. They killed off his entire crew and then did a magical incantation to trap him forever in the land of the mirrors. He’s been trapped in there for ages. He can only come out whenever someone recites the right words, and even then he can only stay out for a short period of time. But what havoc he can wreak in that short period.”
“You called him out before?” Hugh asked.
“No,” Peter said. “I never had reason to. He tried to get me to, though. Told me he would do all kinds of favors for me if I just let him out for a little while. But I wasn’t sure because he’s got such a reputation and he is the evilest of all the pirates.”
Hugh took a deep breath and looked more closely at the mirror. He could make out his and Peter’s images well enough, but behind them was a spray of indistinguishable figures. Leaning against the back wall was what may be a mop, but may be something more—a tall and slender pirate—and in the darkened, shady mirror, the long, looping cloth roll towel looked almost human, too.
“Peter,” Hugh said, and his voice came out shaky and small. “I don’t want to play this game.” He turned to walk over to the door, but Peter put a hand on his shoulder. Peter’s fingers felt icy, like the darkness around them had penetrated deep inside him. When Hugh looked back at Peter, he could almost believe that it had. That there was something in the shadows that had possessed his brother. There was something in the shadows and it was coming, now, for Hugh.
“But Hugh,” Peter said, “it isn’t a game.”
Hugh looked back at the towel and the mop in the mirror. “If he’s a evil pirate, how can we know he won’t kill us instead of Albert? Or kill all three of us?”
Peter shook his head. “That’s just the thing, isn’t it? We can’t be. But you know, Pan says that to die would be a very great adventure.”
Hugh stepped up to the counter and braced himself against the edge. “What do we do?”
“Look into your reflection, Hugh. Look hard.”
Hugh stared into the mirror. The whites of his eyes caught what little light there was in the room, and they seemed to be glowing.
“Keep staring at your own reflection as I say the magical words.”
“Then what will happen?”
“You’ll notice him slowly materializing over your image. And don’t be afraid, Hugh. He’s scary looking, but I won’t let him out of the mirror until he promises to help us with Albert.”
Hugh’s forehead was beginning to sweat and he reached up with his forearm to swipe it clean.
“Are you looking hard into your reflection?” Peter asked.
“Angus,” Peter said. “Oh hear our solemn plea. Angus Develish Firebelly, come to us from beyond.”
Hugh stared into the glowing whites of his reflection’s eyes. The image seemed to shimmer and morph in front of him, the darkness edged in around the contours of his face but when he looked from the eyes to the edges around his reflection’s face, he saw that nothing had changed. Hugh looked back at the eyes. He thought for a second that they flashed a different color, but in the darkness it was so hard to tell. His stomach was cold and the hair on his arms and legs stood on end. He wanted to ask Peter to stop, please stop. Angus was on his way; Hugh could feel it in the air, in his stomach, in his blood. Angus would soon overtake Hugh’s reflection and Hugh didn’t want to watch it happen, to watch his own face transform into something unfamiliar.
“Angus Develish Firebelly,” Peter chanted. His voice was so low it almost sounded like a growl and it seemed to come not from his body, but from his soul. “Angus Develish Firebelly,” he said, a little louder. “Angus!” he yelled. “Develish! Firebelly!”
Peter stopped talking and Hugh kept staring at his reflection. It looked ghastly in the dim light, with its glowing eyes and murky edges. It lived in the shadows—this being, this beast—and though it still looked like Hugh, not Angus D. Firebelly, it was an evil other version of Hugh. It was sinister, mysterious, magical.
As Hugh stared into his reflection a thick silence filled the air. There was no sound but for his and Peter’s heavy breathing, and after a second even that faded into the background. The blood beat in Hugh’s ears and all he could hear for a moment was that thump, thump, thump. Hugh’s reflection’s teeth glinted and for a moment Hugh felt certain that the transformation was complete. He drew his top lip down over his teeth and watched as his reflection did the same. Not complete yet. But that face glaring back at him: it was hard. The skin didn’t look soft the way Hugh’s skin was soft. Where Hugh’s features were round and elastic, his reflection’s features appeared fixed, unyielding.
Hugh fought the urge to close his eyes. He felt certain that if he closed his eyes now, he would be locked forever in this state somewhere between boy and pirate. He focused hard on the eyes inside the mirror. Looked as intently as he had ever looked at anything.
And then nothing.
And then nothing.
And then the door creaked open, the light flicked back on. And then, a cool flood of relief.
The boys looked up at Mr. Harnsworth, the janitor, looking down at them. “What you gents doing in yere, eh?”
“Nothing,” Peter said quickly. “Just playing a game.”
Harnsworth jangled his enormous ring of keys on his belt loop. “Bell rang a’ready.”
“Sorry, sir. We didn’t hear it in here.”
Harnsworth motioned his head toward the door. “A’right. A’right. But get go’n, now.”
Peter and Hugh hurried out of the bathroom, looking down.
Years later, after the rumor and the fight and the consequences of both had receded deeply into the past, Hugh and Peter reunited after years of unintended separation to visit Peter’s dad’s funeral. Not because they loved him—they didn’t, they hadn’t even known the man—but because Peter felt compelled somehow, compelled was the only way he could describe it, and he needed Hugh to come along.
Hugh was thirty-five and Peter almost forty, and both men had been in and out of jail most of their lives for things like petty theft and drugs, and in Peter’s case, assault. They hadn’t actually seen each other in almost seven years, but when Peter called Hugh and told him that his dad had died—liver failure, apparently he was a drunk, Peter said—Hugh understood at once that there are certain bonds that cannot be untied, and brotherhood is one of them.
There was hardly anybody at the funeral, which seemed to comfort Peter. “I don’t know why,” he said, “but I think it would bother me if he had turned out to be Mr. Popularity or something, or if there were a bunch of other sons and daughters here.”
Hugh nodded. They sat in silence through the service as the pastor stumbled his way through generalized details about Peter’s father’s life. After the service, Peter and Hugh made their way up to the casket to take a look at the man who had done things to Peter that Peter couldn’t even remember. Neither Hugh nor Peter actually knew what Peter’s father had looked like in life, so they couldn’t say whether he looked just as he always had, like he was just sleeping, but they could say he didn’t look scary or imposing or mean or perverted, all descriptions their mother would have attached to him. He just looked small inside the giant pine box. Small and kind of helpless.
“So this is my dad,” Peter said, looking into the casket. “Was,” he corrected himself.
“I guess so,” Hugh said, and hesitantly put his arm around Peter, not sure whether his brother needed solace or not.
“Huh,” Peter said and shrugged. He looked over his shoulder at Hugh. “I’m not really sure what I thought would happen here. I guess I thought maybe I’d feel something. Thought maybe there’d be some kind of letting go.”
“Not so much?” Hugh asked.
Peter shook his head. “It’s just some guy’s funeral. Some guy I didn’t know.”
They went out for beers after, to catch up. They talked about old times, about Pan and Pirates and the days before that first stint in juvie. They talked, too, about Albert Frank, about the fight, and about whether or not there had to be a first time. After both brothers were good and drunk, Hugh asked Peter something he had been wanting to know for years. That day in front of the mirror, had Peter known that nothing would happen, Hugh wondered. Had he believed the story himself, or had he been trying to teach Hugh a lesson?
Peter didn’t know, he said, what Hugh was talking about. Had no memory of the day in question. Pirates and mirrors?
Must have just been some game they were playing. Must have just been a joke.
Hugh nodded and smiled, laughed and swigged his beer. Changed the subject and pretended to believe Peter, that it had all just been a game. That it had never meant anything at all.
I can’t recall when I first started scribbling those little notes I later stashed in various hiding places around the apartment. It sure as hell could not have been a lot earlier, because at the time I was still a little girl and surely needed to have first learned how to read and write.
But I do remember quite clearly the day when the light tapping sounded on the door, in an attempt to reproduce the cadences of “I did it my way!” It was the last day of some school vacation, 10 AM. She was still in the shower, and rather chipper—a surprise in itself. “Open it, come on, get there fast, open the door already. Say I’ll be out in a jiffy,” she kept yelling.
I shuffled over to the door.
And there he was. Impatient to come in. Moishele, Regina’s husband, with his little white mustache. His potbelly threatening to burst through his shirt buttons. The man was shaped like a pistachio nut whose shell was fitted with a tiny sheaf of bristles. Likewise swaths of porcupine hair gleaming with Brylcreem pulled down towards his jaw on both sides of his head.
So there he was, eager as a beaver, arms outstretched to wrap themselves around me the way grownups sometimes do to have fun with kids.
I ducked nimbly. His scissoring hands failed to trap me and he almost fell on his nose. I could hear the whiplash produced by his near miss.
I flew down the hall leading to my room. From a safe distance I blurted out: “Mom’s still in the shower and dad took Davidi to get some shoes.”
Moishele must have managed to retrieve his balance, since in no time he was in the living room. There he settled to wait for her, whistling “I did it my way!” just slightly out of tune.
The next thing that happens is the bathroom door swinging open. She emerges wearing her red galabia, lavishly embroidered at the top on both sides of her exposed cleavage, gleefully humming back “I did it my way!” She strikes a ta-da! posture with the hip-swing to match, before rushing into the slithery arms of the visitor, who has risen to meet her. And now, using that phony falsetto of hers, she giggles herself silly: “Oy, Moishele, what a surprise! Where’s Regina and the kiddos??”
Moishele retorts with a question of his own: “What’s the matter, Tamara, can’t one hug this honeybee sweet little thing that ran away from me for dear life?” All the while fluttering his hands on her butt, which certainly is not about to run off anywhere. Not that I needed to actually see that to know it was happening.
Instantly her cheerful tone gives way to that loud, domineering, screeching voice. The familiar note announcing the onset of yet another tantrum.
“Doreet! You cheeky brat! Over here at once! And now, apologize! What’s wrong with you, running away from Moishele like this?! Right now!” And she’s back to giggling, trying to recoup her upbeat mood: “This child has no manners. Doesn’t appreciate being loved.” Then, turning to me, hissing: “You should be thankful anyone should ever feel like touching you, you scrawny, redheaded monkey…”
I was always capable of dodging Moishele’s embrace. Her violent outbursts of rage were harder to elude. Any attempt to do so would only fan her fury. And the violence that followed would get meaner. I knew she would still be there after he left.
I dragged my feet along the hallway to where I could glimpse the living room, then veered left into the kitchen. The large, serrated knife lay on the cutting board next to a loaf of bread. I deftly grabbed it and hid it behind my back. Her yelling resumed: “Come on, did I not tell you to get over here and apologize to Moishele?!” The mustachioed pistachio was marking time, one hand wrapped around her waist, the other flung forward to do the same for me. She speared me with the devastating look reserved for this very moment, the brief moment just before she’d totally lose control. She demanded: “What is it you’re hiding behind your back?” stomping one plump foot whose long toes were painted flaming bright crimson.
I returned her stare, this time without fear. I remember well the slow motion of my hand, making its way around my ribcage, then setting the handle against my stomach with the sharp business end pointed at the couple facing me.
“It’s the bread knife,” I told her.
The bread knife, to chop off Moishele’s hands, that always aim to hug little girls as well as their mothers.
This took place the day before. And the next day I gathered my notes from their various hiding places and bundled them into little piles: there were quite a few notes. I went out into the nearby sunflower patch, that was taller than my red head, and I burned them all. I no longer needed them.
And as she kept threatening and screaming like a crazy woman, all the while re-casting the sequence of events that had just transpired with lie upon lie against the background of Mr. Pistachio’s whitening face – I knew.
I knew that I no longer needed any notes to protect me. Knew that I could remember very well. That I could rely on my own memory. That she could no longer confound my with her lying. I knew that lies make me sick to my stomach, and only sticking to what I know can keep me sane. More precisely, can keep me from going crazy. Crazy like her.
SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN
I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.
Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.
When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.
It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.
When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.
The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.
Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.
There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…
I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.
Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.
So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.
Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.
My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.
So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.
The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”
I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.
In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?
No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?
Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.
After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.
But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?
“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.
“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.
“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.
“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.
I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.
“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”
“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.
“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”
“I won’t! “
My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.
After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”
I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”
“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”
Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.
“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”
“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.
My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”
Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.
My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.
We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.
Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.
“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.
“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”
“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”
We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.
“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.
After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”
“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”
We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”
“They can’t,” I said, shocked.
“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”
This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.
Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!
Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.
“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”
Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”
“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.
“I won’t be ready,” I said.
“You’ll be ready.”
“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”
“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.
My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.
“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”
“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?
“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”
“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.
They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”
“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.
Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.
Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?
“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.
Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.
During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.
An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.
Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”
“Everything is strange,” I said.
The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”
I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.
“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”
They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.
And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.
To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”
The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”
All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”
I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”
“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”
“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”
“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.
We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.
The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.
Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.
There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.
You cross earth now.
You cross water now.
You cross the Ice now….
And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:
Together we have crossed the Ice.
Together we come into the Hearthplace,
Into life, bringing life!
In the act of creation, praise!
The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.
I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.
He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.
“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.
It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.
I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.
It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.
Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.
It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.
“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.
“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”
“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”
I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.
“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”
“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”
“That’s you?” I said, awed.
“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.
Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.
Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.
*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.