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